DRESDEN — Town voters will decide next month if they want a hired Town Office staff  — a proposal put forth in response to complaints and mistakes from elected administrative workers.

A public hearing on the proposal from selectmen is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at Pownalborough Hall.

Selectman Dwight Keene said the change could help the office operate more efficiently.

“The system that we have has worked fine for 100 years,” he said Friday. “Things have just reached a point where a person … has to be elected every year and by the time they actually learn the job, they could be up for re-election again.

“Because of the increase in what the state requires of clerks and registrars, … you need a higher level of expertise going into the job,” Keene added. “Essentially, we’re finding it more and more difficult to get people to run for the positions that have that level of expertise.”

Keene said the purpose of the meeting was to gather public input and explain the Select Board’s position of advocating for hired workers.

“It’s getting to the point where people have to have a good grasp how the laws are written,” he said. “Not everybody walking down the street is able to do that.”

Last summer, complaints of incomplete and poor service by elected Town Office employees sparked a heated discussion at a Select Board meeting. At the meeting, selectmen told Shirley Storkson, the elected town clerk and treasurer, and Ann 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.

At that time, Storkson said the town doesn’t allocate enough hours for adequate coverage or for training. Experts said office staff members in small towns often struggle with juggling the responsibilities of multiple positions because of complex procedures.

Further debate kicked up in October 2018, when lost paperwork caused headaches for the Select Board when trying to give a tax abatement. That glitch revealed talks of changing to hired workers, although selectmen said it has been considered before.

If the town transitions to hired workers, the board would have more purview over the workers. Since Town Office workers and selectmen are both currently elected, neither body is higher in the town hierarchy. Keene said the town can provide training opportunities and suggest changes for current Town Office staff, but the staff doesn’t have to use them.

“We are willing to send people to school to learn these positions, but there’s no way to make them,” he said. “The people attending these classes don’t get paid for their time.”

Storkson and Pierce work similarly arranged 22-to-23-hour weeks, with time allotted 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 in August 2018 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.

Pierce told the Kennebec Journal on Friday that she was in favor of elected Town Office workers.

“I think it would benefit the town going into the future,” she said.

But the switch might not be a cut-and-dried solution. In August 2018, Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, told the Kennebec Journal that all sectors in Maine have struggled to find qualified workers. With Maine’s average age increasing, he said, there is no guarantee that any highly qualified candidates will apply for municipal jobs.

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

A subsequent special town meeting will take place to vote on the issue at 6 p.m. March 11 at Pownalborough Hall.

 

Sam Shepherd — 621-5666
[email protected]
Twitter: @SamShepME

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