DRESDEN — A heated discussion arose at last week’s Selectboard meeting, with selectmen saying residents have been complaining about service they’re getting and workers saying they need more time and training.

At the meeting, selectmen told Shirley Storkson, the elected town clerk and treasurer, and Anne Pierce, excise and property tax collector, they’d heard from residents complaining about poor customer service and not being able to get all their work done in one trip.

“The major complaints I get from the public (about the office now are) that they go to get a motor vehicle registration done and they have to come back three or four times,” Selectwoman Trudy Foss said. “Another complaint is that one of the girls (is) rude to people. They’ve already come up with names for her.”

Storkson said the workers still are learning their responsibilities and need more working hours to learn the job and better serve residents. She said some functions cannot be done during all business hours.

For example, Storkson feels uncomfortable registering motor vehicles because it falls under Pierce’s job description, and she has not been trained by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to do so.

“You have to go to the BMV and learn how to do it, and from what I hear from (Pierce), it takes a lot of time,” Storkson said.

The issue begs the question: Would it be better to hire a clerk than to elect one? Hiring an experienced municipal clerk could yield better results, but finding a qualified person isn’t so simple.

Roberta Fogg, Augusta’s city clerk and president of the Androscoggin and Kennebec Joint Association of the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association, said clerks in small towns often have a difficult time juggling the responsibilities of multiple positions with the complexity of procedures.

“It takes a long time to get all of those pieces in place to move through those jobs seamlessly,” she said.

Going the election route can lead to candidates that have little to no municipal experience, but local and state organizations offer training to help them learn.

“I understand that (Maine has) a strong tradition of electing clerks,” Fogg said, “but when you elect someone who is new, they have quite a bit of work to do to get up to speed.”

Eric Conrad, spokesperson for the Maine Municipal Association, said all sectors in Maine have struggled finding qualified workers. With Maine’s average age increasing, he said, there is no guarantee that any highly-qualified candidates will apply for jobs.

“You might be hiring someone that works at a retail store that may have just as much background as an elected (official),” he said Tuesday. “Either way, you have someone who has never had municipal experience.”

The MTCCA, Maine Municipal Association and the Maine secretary of state’s office could not provide information about how many clerks are elected versus appointed by press time.

The MTCCA works with the secretary of state’s office to offer training twice a year on running elections, she said, and it curates a mentoring program for new clerks that provides guidance from others while they are learning the job.

CHALLENGES OF THE POSITION

The part-time nature of the job makes training difficult, because Pierce and Storkson need to cover the front desk and perform their administrative duties.

Selectman Dwight Keene said at the meeting he does not expect them to attend long training sessions on top of their short workweek.

“The town doesn’t have a right to expect the elected officials to, essentially, volunteer extra time to do it,” he said. “I do believe the girls are putting in more time during the week than they are paid to do, (and) I don’t think that’s fair.”

Storkson and Pierce work similarly arranged 22-to-23-hour weeks, with time alloted to each of their two positions. Pierce said during the meeting that she is comfortable working 23 hours because she works for two other businesses during the week.

Storkson said she works 12 hours per week as the treasurer and 11 hours per week as the town clerk, and it works out to a $17 per hour wage between the positions.

“They’re two completely different jobs,” she said, “and the set of rules and laws are entirely different for each one.”

Storkson said she has worked as an office clerk before and as a medical administrative assistant, preparing her complicated guidelines and policies. She started as Dresden town clerk in June 2017 but still struggles with local ordinances and policy.

“They do things different here,” she said. “I’m used to strict rules. It’s more the local policies that I have to get used to.”

Foss said Storkson should perform simultaneously both jobs she was elected to do, but the clerk said she structures her workweek to dedicate time to each position.

“When I do treasury stuff, I don’t want to be interrupted a lot,” Storkson said. “You’re dealing with funds, tax money, banks and financial information, and I need to concentrate on that.”

A former deputy clerk and administrative assistant in Dresden for 29 years, Foss said she has tried to help Storkson learn functions in the office but eventually stopped when Storkson grew frustrated.

“I used to try talking to her while I still worked there,” Foss said. “She doesn’t like to have help. I figured that out in short order.”

Foss said she thinks the town clerk job has gotten “easier” since she was working as the deputy clerk because a lot of functions — such as paying property taxes and obtaining hunting and fishing licenses — can be done online. Foss said Storkson has enough hours to perform her jobs adequately.

Her Selectboard colleagues don’t agree, Keene saying the job has grown more complicated.

“We still have a Town Office that’s trying to function as if it were in the 1800s,” he said. “Over the years, the workload for the Town Office has gotten heavier, mostly because of the state bureaucracy.

“The idea that just anybody who walks in off the street or manages to get elected is going to have the skill set to do the job required (is outdated),” Keene added.

Fogg started out as a town clerk in Littleton, an Aroostook County town with about 1,000 residents, when the town was making the switch from an elected clerk to a hired clerk. She said the town clerk there started when she was 18 and held the position for decades before retiring. Fogg said the role of a clerk has evolved since then.

“When she started in the ’30s, it was a totally different position,” she said. “There were not as many regulations. The amount of regulations, just in elections alone, is staggering.”

SEARCHING FOR A SOLUTION

Mark Brewer, political science professor at University of Maine, said one possible solution could be merging local governments to increase efficiency and reduce total cost.

“The academic literature, with the idea of consolidation, sounds great in theory,” he said. “That’s certainly less viable in some areas of Maine because of the distances between towns.”

Dresden, a town of 1,656 residents, according to 2016 Census data, borders five other towns: Alna, Pittston, Richmond, Wiscasset and Woolwich.

Brewer said the biggest obstacle with transitioning to a full-time clerk, whether elected or hired, would be convincing taxpayers to foot the bill. He said it would come to down residents choosing convenience or steady property taxes.

“People will ask if that’s an appropriate use of our resources,” he said. “It’s a matter of individual viewpoint. That’s the point of debate and dialogue.”

Dresden has considered hiring clerks before, but the proposal never got off the ground.

“It was brought up years ago to take the elected positions and make them hired positions,” Keene said. “It didn’t go anywhere, and it created quite a few bad feelings (with the current clerk).”

Foss, who retired in December from her prior town position, said the reason she ran for a position on the Selectboard was to straighten out problems at the Town Office. She confirmed that the problems predate Storkson.

“It’s actually been going on for about four years,” she said. “We had a clerk for three years that never learned her job, but no one else ever ran.”

Keene advocated hiring someone to work a small amount of time to cover the front desk.

“If it were totally up to me, I would put a deputy in there to back up the two individuals that are already there,” he said. “It’s hard to find someone to work a couple of hours a week.”

Storkson said the Town Office needs more working hours, regardless of whether she or somebody else is in the office.

Selectman Allan Moeller said the town could allocate more hours or hire a short-term employee as long as it costs the town less than $5,000, the total of a “slush fund” line item in the budget. Any amount over that line would have to be approved by voters, because the budget already was approved at Town Meeting. If either employee quits, the town could advertise the job.

The town recently hired an administrative assistant, Michael Henderson, to work 40 hours a week — more than the 32-hour threshold that requires the town to provide benefits. He covers some posts during business hours at the Town Office but also acts as an advisor and secretary at Selectboard meetings.

Keene said a decision by selectmen about town administrative workers is imminent.

“We’re getting by right now, but it’s beginning to create a problem,” he said. “It’s up to the selectman to solve the problem but also have it be acceptable to the townspeople.”

Moeller asked Storkson to come back to selectmen with a proposal for a new amount of hours that would help serve the town better. The next regular Selectboard meeting is scheduled for Sept. 17.

Sam Shepherd — 621-5666

[email protected]

Twitter: @SamShepME

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