WINSLOW — Three months of advertising and not a single application for the town’s open mechanic position has crossed Winslow Public Works Director Paul Fongemie’s desk.

“I’ve been telling this joke,” Fongemie told the Town Council in its regularly scheduled earlier this month. “I’d like to get at least a bad one to say no, but we’re not even getting those.”

The Town of Winslow openly admits it is struggling to hire and retain workers in its public works and fire departments, and town administration is fully on board to rectify the problems.

The challenges facing Winslow point to a broader problem at other Maine towns and cities: difficulty filling municipal positions that have traditionally offered low wages. Some municipalities are looking to catch up to statewide average wages.

There are obstacles in the way. For example, raising salaries adds to the property taxes. According to a 2011 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, state-local workers earn 9.5% less in salary than comparable private sector workers, but the wage gap is “mostly offset by higher pension and retiree health benefits.”

Winslow Town Manager Erica LaCroix presented to the town council a new proposed wage scale with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents the town’s public works and fire departments. The council  approved the three-year contract with the union unanimously, waving the second reading to start it as soon as possible.

The new contract costs the town $250,000 for the first year and smaller increases the next two years. Following the first year, public works employees get a yearly 50 cents per hour increase and the fire department gets a 40 cents per hour cost of living increase. There is also potential for 3.5% salary increases for achieving new steps during the life of the contract. Step increases are given each year after the first five years on the job, but LaCroix told the council between a half and two-thirds of employees are “maxed out” at step six given their years on the job. The contract does not impact this year’s budget, which includes a two-mill increase.

“This is not just about giving people money,” LaCroix said. “We had a pretty severe deficit, especially within the fire department, with wages in the surrounding communities.”

To that end, the fire department lost two of its staffers in the last month, departing for departments in Gardiner and Bangor paying $4 and $6 per hour more, respectively. Under the new contract, an entry-level Winslow firefighter will make $19.38 hourly, a $4 hourly increase from the current contract. There is also a new requirement for a satisfactory performance review to achieve the next step and/or receive a longevity bonus. As part of the review, fire department employees will be required to pass a cardiovascular fitness test.

“Our goal in all of this is to make sure those guys are safe during the job,” LaCroix said.

Eric Conrad, spokesperson for the Maine Municipal Association, pointed to the organization’s website, where the Hometown Careers portal has shown municipal job listings statewide since 2018. He said municipalities’ biggest challenge prior to the coronavirus pandemic was hiring and it remains that way.

“It’s not just keeping up with private sector wages, which is always a challenge for towns and cities,” Conrad said. “Getting young people or mid-career people in the pipeline is an ongoing challenge that’s not going away.”

Skowhegan’s Fire Department is represented by the International Association of Fire Fighters union. Effective July 1, an entry-level firefighter makes $16.45 an hour. Skowhegan’s contract has 20 steps, topping out at $23.96 an hour, and Town Manager Christine Almand said in an email the town is not having trouble with hiring or retention due to wages. Winslow’s firefighter pay tops out at $22.68 in the new contract. According to a worksheet compiled by LaCroix, a Winslow fire captain’s compensation package, including the value of salary, stipends and bonuses, is approximately 12% below average compared to towns of a similar size.

The public works mechanic job is the toughest one to fill, Fongemie and LaCroix said. The town is in competition with the private sector, and the strategy of scooping up a mechanic fresh out of trade school is no longer viable as the position increases in demand across the board. An entry-level mechanic currently makes $18.91 an hour, which bumps up to $19.86 with the new contract.

“Going forward, we have got to pay people what they’re worth and what the trades are paying,” District 1 Councilor Peter Drapeau said.

“Absolutely,” At-Large Councilor Jeff West responded.

“The days of hiring talent for non-talent wages aren’t happening,” Drapeau continued.

Fairfield Public Works, also represented by AFSCME, pays a maximum of $22.13 hourly for mechanic roles. Winslow’s mechanic role maxes out at $23.36, senior mechanic at $25.16 at the end of the contract. According to LaCroix’s worksheet, which used data from the Maine Municipal Association, Winslow’s senior mechanic role’s compensation is approximately 11% less than the state average.

The town budgeted enough in 2021-22 for the increase for public works, but they will have to raise appropriated funds for the fire department.

Fairfield recently lost its director of public works to the private sector due to the wage difference, and there are open roles within the department Town Manager Michelle Flewelling is having a hard time to fill. There’s also an inherent pressure, and lack of anonymity, when working for the public.

“It’s my own opinion that the ‘municipalities having a hard time finding applicants situation’ has a bit more to do with the cultural climate regarding government entities than wages and benefits,” Flewelling said. “It takes a certain kind of someone to work for a municipality, regardless of its size, to know that when you go to work, and do your job correctly, almost no will notice, but make one mistake and you will hear about it for days, sometimes even years.”

The Farmington Police Department has several openings on its staff after significant turnover in recent years. To combat this, the town authorized a sign-on bonus valued at up to $8,000 to attract qualified candidates. The Jay Police Department also needs more officers, but the town does not have payroll to compete with outside agencies, Town Manager Shiloh LaFreniere said in an email.

Farmington Town Manager Richard P. Davis said in an email he’s unsure if the incentives are working yet.

“The workarounds are overtime and command staff taking shifts,” Davis said. “I hope we can fill these positions, as the vacancies put a strain on the entire department.”

The Winslow Police Department is under contract until 2023, but LaCroix said all immediate towns are paying more than Winslow. Their retirement plan offers 50%, but most towns offer a two-thirds plan. District 4 Councilor and Chairperson Ray Caron said he does not want to wait to address the contract when it’s up, rather working for competitive wages as soon as possible.

While the new contract doesn’t fix everything, it’s a step in the right direction for compensation of the town’s public works and fire departments.

“My goal in this contract was so that we could address wages, recruitment and retention with the people that we have,” LaCroix said. “When we’re recruiting young people the retirement doesn’t mean as much to them, but for keeping people here we will need to address retirement as we go down the road.”

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