A help wanted sign for Cyr Bus hangs on a school bus in the parking lot of the Old Town-Orono YMCA. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

With an expected wave of retirements on the horizon and a paucity of applicants, communities throughout Maine are having a hard time filling vacant positions in town halls, police departments and other municipal offices.

This is a growing problem that should concern the state’s residents. When communities are unable to hire town managers, clerks, teachers, police officers, firefighters, plow drivers, bus drivers and other essential workers, community services are diminished, delayed, and perhaps even eliminated. And, one person’s non-essential service may be essential for someone else’s daily living.

“Everybody’s dealing with it,” David Barrett, the director of personnel services and labor relations for the Maine Municipal Association, told the BDN’s Ethan Genter. “There are a lot of towns looking and there is a dearth of applicants.”

A recent BDN story about the difficulties filling these vacancies cited a variety of reasons for the growing problem. Many municipal workers are nearing retirement age at a time when a hot job market means that government jobs often can’t compete with private sector salaries for similar work that often comes with more regular hours. Colleges and universities have also seen a drop in the numbers of students studying public administration.

In some communities, especially in coastal areas, high housing costs have priced municipal workers out of the market. Earlier this year, several town administrators on Mount Desert Island reported a hard time finding affordable housing.

Many of these are long term – and long standing – problems that won’t be fixed quickly. For example, statewide efforts to increase the availability of affordable housing are essential for a variety of reasons, including easing Maine’s workforce shortage. But, state and local efforts won’t instantaneously increase the amount of affordable housing.

There have also been efforts to raise the wages for some jobs. But, while this may help fill some vacancies, it isn’t the full solution.

One thing that can be changed immediately is how we all treat the employees we come into contact with, whether they work for a government entity or the private sector.

The decline of civil discourse and increasing hostility to municipal employees and elected officials is also likely a factor in the difficulty of filing these positions.

The problem is so bad that lawmakers this session considered bills to protect election workers and educational personnel from threats and harassment. The election worker bill passed; the one for school personnel did not. Under state law, it is already a crime to harass “public servants.”

“The tenor toward municipal officials has changed,” Cathy Conlow, the executive director of the Maine Municipal Association, told the BDN editorial board late last year. “There is more angst toward local officials and municipal employees.”

​​Conlow served as the city manager in Bangor for 11 years and six years as the town manager in Orono.

The problem isn’t just with elected officials. Conlow noted that numerous Maine communities had extended searches for city managers. Shortages of police officers, EMTs and firefighters have been a problem in Maine for years. Code enforcement officers and assessors are also hard to find.

Threats and harassment drive people away from public service jobs, such as managing our schools and towns. This is especially detrimental at a time when cities and towns are struggling to fill the jobs that are essential to keeping their communities safe and functional.

Avatar photo

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...