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DURHAM — As Durham grows, town officials hope to hire an experienced town manager to guide the community, but some residents worry that with the limitations created by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s not the right time for a change in government. 

Select board members on the other hand, think it’s the perfect time, and are asking voters to approve the launch of a town manager search after the November election. 

“Managing a municipality, even for a mid-sized town like Durham, is becoming more and more complex and it’s something that’s becoming less and less realistic for a part-time elected official to properly oversee those functions to the degree that we would all like to see them supervised,” Kevin Nadeau, select board chair told residents during a public hearing last week. 

About 85% of communities in Maine with a population over 3,500 have a town manager, Nadeau said. In the last census, Durham had just under 4,000 residents and that population is expected to grow. 

“We’re at the size where a lot of communities make that transition to a town manager.” 

In 2014, the town had four town employees. Six years later, that has more than doubled to 10, largely due to the creation of a public works department. 

The organization of town staff has not changed in response to that growth, Nadeau said, and the town has outgrown the town administrator style of government. 

For the average citizen, not much would change under a town manager, but Nadeau and other officials believe that it would provide needed human resource management, budget management, strategic guidance and vision for the town. 

Durham’s town administrator, currently the closest thing to a town manager, oversees the town office staff and the administrative budget. A town manager, on the other hand, has executive responsibility and accountability for all employees and operations, meaning that department heads currently only report to the select board. The town manager position would replace the town administrator and cost taxpayers roughly $35,000 extra per year. 

The current town administrator, who works four days per week, has an annual salary of $48,214. The town manager position is expected to work five days per week for a roughly $80,000 salary. As the town will not be adding a position, just replacing one, the difference in the cost of benefits is negligible, Nadeau said. 

In November, voters also will be asked to fund up to $8,000 to contract the Maine Municipal Association for an executive search and hiring process, which the board said is “critical to finding the right candidate.” 

“This is a really important position and we want to make sure we do it right,” Nadeau said. 

If approved, officials hope to have someone in place to start after the April 2021 annual town meeting. This position would not change the town meeting or select board elements of town government. 

Resident and planning board head Anne Torregrossa said in her experience working with other towns that having a single professional in charge of the town “streamlines everything” and agreed that it was “critical to get the right person.” 

Resident Jeffrey Wakeman conceded that hiring a town manager is likely the right call, but “I just don’t think this is the right time,” he said.

“We need to be able to discuss this on a town floor with differing opinions,” Wakeman said.

Instead of Durham’s traditional town meeting, residents will be voting by secret ballot because of the coronavirus. 

The public hearing had about 37 viewers and if the second hearing on Saturday has a similar turnout, that’s only about 4% of the anticipated 2,000 voters, Wakeman said, adding that all the information included in the presentation is in favor of the change because the select board wants a town manager. 

There are no differing opinions being presented, no back and forth, which is “really important for major changes like this,” he said. 

Jane Rice agreed that there was not enough discussion and said she only knew it was being discussed because of something she saw on social media. 

Some expressed concerns over the cost, and the potential recurring $8,000 search fee each time there was turnover. Neil Berry, resident and member of the budget committee, argued that a town manager will also require an assistant, adding additional costs. 

A second public hearing discussing this and other local issues on the November ballot is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday and will be conducted over Zoom.

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