ELLSWORTH, Maine — A year after Hancock County hired its first-ever administrator to oversee its operations, another search for a new county administrator is under way.
Eugene Conlogue, a former town manager for Millinocket and Houlton, was hired a year ago to fill Hancock County’s top administrator position, which had not existed prior to 2015. Early this month, however, county commissioners and Conlogue mutually agreed to part ways so the county could find someone else for the post.
Conlogue, contacted Wednesday at his home in Presque Isle, said that he was willing to leave the position because he thought it was “not a good fit.” He declined to go into further details.
In a proposed joint written statement that Conlogue provided to commissioners — but which commissioners declined to endorse — Conlogue said the county faces challenges in trying to reorganize the county treasurer’s office. Conlogue did not go into details about the nature of those challenges.
“The commissioners have decided to move in a different direction,” Conlogue wrote, adding that he and commissioners reached an “amicable settlement.”
According to Hancock County Clerk Cynthia DePrenger, the county provided Conlogue with a severance package as part of that settlement. Conlogue has been paid $15,000 in severance pay, representing eight weeks of work compensation and three weeks of vacation time, and an additional $1,700 in health care coverage for the months of March and April for a total of $16,700, DePrenger said.
On Feb. 23, DePrenger attended the regular monthly meeting of the League of Towns on Mount Desert Island to ask its representatives about their concerns over county government. The league, which consists of nine Mount Desert Island-area municipalities and Acadia National Park, has been critical of how the county government has been run.
DePrenger told the league that, with Conlogue’s departure, the county administrator job description has been re-written to place a heavier emphasis on the position’s financial management duties.
“We’re hoping our county administrator will have a more rounded financial background,” DePrenger said.
County officials have said they hope the administrator’s responsibilities will include many of the duties of the county’s former chief financial officer position, which was eliminated last summer when Phil Roy left that post by mutual agreement with the commissioners.
Commissioner Percy “Joe” Brown, said Friday that commissioners knew when they hired Conlogue that he had a stronger background in administration and in supervising others than he had with financial management. Roy left his position as chief financial officer after being on extended sick leave, which made for a more difficult transition of job responsibilities when much of the county’s bookkeeping burden was shifted onto Conlogue last summer, Brown said.
As a result, the county had difficulty this past fall drafting and refining its annual operations budget. The 2016 budget was not approved by commissioners until Jan. 22 — the first time in recent memory that an annual Hancock County budget had not been approved by the end of the prior calendar year.
Brown said he was sorry to see Conlogue go, but that he supports making financial management a higher priority for whomever the county hires next as its top administrator.
“I thought he did a good job administratively,” Brown said of Conlogue.
League officials also pressed DePrenger at their meeting about their desire for the county to form a commission to explore whether the county’s organizational structure should be changed by adopting a charter, which it currently does not have.
Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt, a league representative who has been among the county’s most vocal critics, said adoption of a charter could result in some county department heads being appointed rather than elected, which could make county government more easy to manage and more efficient. A charter also could establish professional qualifications for some positions that currently have none, such as the treasurer position.
“They are a power unto themselves,” Lunt said, referring to elected county department heads who answer to no one except the voters. The fact that the county has so many elected positions — sheriff, register of deeds, register of probate, treasurer and others — undermines the authority that an appointed administrator has in managing the county’s finances and personnel, he added.
Brown said Friday that some of the league’s concerns can be addressed if the county can find the right person with a financial management background and supervisory experience to become the next county administrator. He said commissioners also will want the next administrator to see if existing municipal services, such as assessing, animal control, or code enforcement, might be consolidated under county control — something that league and other municipal officials have said could be a way to reduce municipal operating costs.
As for the county budget, Brown said county officials worked hard to keep the county’s overall tax burden close to a 1 percent increase. The $5,392,748 the county plans to collect in taxes this year is only $55,000, or slightly more than 1 percent, higher than the $5,337,637 that the county collected in taxes last year, according to a synopsis of the county budget.
The county’s $8.2 million operations budget for 2016 is $824,000 higher than the $7.4 million in expenditures commissioners budgeted for 2015. Much of that increase, which Brown attributed to decreased state support for running the county jail, is expected to be offset by higher revenues generated in the county’s registries of deeds and probate and by an increase in law enforcement patrol contracts with municipalities.