GARDINER — For years, the only thing Natalie Thomsen knew about municipal government was that the Town Hall is where you went to get your license plates and register your car.

At the close of her summer internship with the city of Gardiner, she has a different view.

“I didn’t realize how much work the Public Works Department does,” said the 20-year-old University of Maine Farmington student. “I always thought Public Works never did anything more than plow the roads in the winter and pave them in the summer. I was shook.”

Thomsen’s job for the last two months has been to update data on the city’s web-based map program using geographic information system technology. More specifically, she has been detailing the location of storm sewers and basins by locating specific features, including fire hydrants, and incorporating information from the city’s older paper maps.

She also flagged problem areas in the system that have been identified for possible upgrades, along with project details and estimated capital costs. If any of those projects go forward, their status can be easily updated in the program.

Thomsen also worked on an online project for the Gardiner Public Library that will show how parts of Gardiner looked historically.

Her work comes at a time when city officials are completing a transition to a web-based program to keep track of information in a more user-friendly way.

Gardiner Public Works Director Tony LaPlante said this project stemmed from the need for his department to make corrections in the field to the information the city had compiled on the underground network of pipes.

“We had a special program, but it was difficult to run,” LaPlante said. “It wasn’t so easily accessible.”

Two years ago, the city commissioned a storm water drainage report to assess the state of the system. City officials have been working to separate storm water runoff from the sanitary sewer system. For example, they have been urging property owners to identify and correct illegal connections to the sewer system via roof drains and sump pumps.

“We’ve got that all mapped,” LaPlante said. “As we have started chipping away at that stuff we identified as part of the program, we have found that pipes go in different directions, or pipes that have been discontinued or changed direction. We can add those back in very quickly. We’re stepping into the technology world.”

Some of his workers have been with the department for 20 years, he said, and they still find pipes of which they were unaware.

Mapping the network helps the department figure out how to fix problems and address emergencies, LaPlante said.

Growing up in Lisbon, Thomsen loved maps and history, and she figured that would lead to a career in teaching. She had spent time in high school in student government and working on education policy.

Thomsen is the first in her family to attend a four-year college. After a semester pursuing an education degree, she realized teaching was not her passion, and she preferred working on policy. Thomsen reassessed and switched to business economics, with minors in both geography and legal studies. She’ll graduate with a GIS certificate.

After she wraps up her internship this week, Thomsen will spend the first semester of her senior year at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, then return to Farmington for her final semester.

She plans to apply to the Peace Corps for a chance to undertake economic development work. If she gets in, she’ll leave at the end of May and work in the corps for two years.

“I’ll get the chance to work with strong communities without a lot of resources, exactly what Maine has,” Thomsen said. “It’s really relatable, and the experience will be nice. Plus, it will cement into me that’s what I want to do.”

After that, she said, she plans to pursue a graduate degree in policy planning and management at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.

Had it not been for her involvement in student government and work with her school board, Thomsen said she would not have had any idea about the work that making a municipality run entails.

“I don’t think many people know the opportunities available,” she said.

The Maine Municipal Association has been running a program that shows that any strength can be used in municipal government, and she draws inspiration from that.

“I was the president of my fraternity last semester, Alpha Phi Omega (a national service fraternity), and we’re hosting a conference in the spring, and one of the things we talked about is having someone from MMA come and talk about how leadership skills can apply to municipal government,” Thomsen said. “I’m hoping they come. There are literally more positions open for city managers than there are people going into that position in the next five years.”

While she herself doesn’t want to be a city manager, she would like to work in economic development in Maine.

But in the meantime, Thomsen spent her summer shadowing a number of municipal departments, and she recommends anyone in an internship with a city or town do the same to see the bigger picture.

“It’s a different kind of field,” LaPlante said. “It’s gotta be something that interests you. It’s ever changing, and it impacts a lot of people. It’s one of those jobs you really have to enjoy.”

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