Small Town Profile: Union, Maine

A look at what life is like for a small-town manager [PM Magazine, July 2020]

By Jay Feyler | Jul 1, 2020 | ARTICLE
Town Manager:

Jay Feyler

Town:

Union, Maine

Population:

2,300, though it grows to about 3,500 during the summer due to the many lakes and summer camps and cottages.

Local Government Staff:

The town has four full-time public works staff, a full-time clerk, two part-time clerks, and a part-time treasurer, assessor, and code officer.

The Position in Detail:

After more than 20 years owning a small business and volunteering on many town government committees, I took the leap to apply for the town manager position in our small town of Union, Maine in the summer of 2009. As manager of a small town, you get to experience all aspects of town government, it is a great place to start your career and you may find that you are like me and love the small town atmosphere and wish to stay there.

In my position I am the general assistance administrator, road commissioner, public information officer, deputy treasurer, human resource director, IT person, and even the office repairman. I have driven an ambulance, plowed snow for more than 24 straight hours, and dealt with computer issues, broken water pipes, and electrical issues, among other things—sometimes all of those in the same day.

Wearing many hats can be stressful, as sometimes everything seems to happen all at once. I have to prioritize what gets done today, this week, or may not get done for months. And of course, it is important to concentrate on the priorities of our elected officials, which sometimes can conflict with the many other routine issues that require my attention. And with a very small staff, it is not always possible to delegate. But most of the time I find it very rewarding to be directly involved in all aspects of town government.

To survive, one must have a terrific staff, and for the most part I have been fortunate enough to have surrounded myself with a loyal and qualified staff. It is important to keep in mind that they are the reason you’re able to succeed, and they should be rewarded as such.

A great thing about small towns is that you pretty much get to know everyone. We know our elderly population well and can assist them without being asked. We know when Grandma Smith needs some heating oil or additional food; we simply make it happen without embarrassment. In a town like this, I can have a true open-door policy, where everyone feels welcome to come in and bring their concerns directly to me, something that is logistically hard to do in a larger community.

On the other side, knowing everyone can be difficult when contentious issues come up, or when you must tell a citizen or friend that you cannot assist them or make exceptions. I simply show them the ICMA Code of Ethics and they usually understand.

Collaboration with other municipalities and other managers is a must to survive in a small town. Without a large staff, it is imperative that you work with colleagues and lean on them not only for advice, but to collaborate with their staff on bids, land-use issues, human resources, and more. I am heavily involved in my local and state managers association and I am an ICMA member. These relationships enable me to reach out to my colleagues for assistance when needed—one of the most important tools in managing a small town with limited staff and resources.

In April 2019, we had a devastating fire at our Public Works garage, so all of our vehicles and equipment were unavailable for the pending spring storm the very next day. As I dealt with insurance issues and the aftermath of the fire, my colleagues from other towns were securing us trucks, sanders, and even personnel to work the storm. A couple of months later when our garage was being torn down, we had tons of steel beams that needed to be removed. The salvage yard wanted them in three-foot sections, which would have cost us thousands of dollars in contracted labor. One email to a colleague in northern Maine, and a few hours later, he had a trucking company committed to picking them up and using them for bridges in Aroostook County. Without these relationships from my involvement with the Maine Town and City Managers Association and ICMA, these valuable resources would have been very difficult to find.

The unique rewards and challenges of managing a small town have never been more apparent than during the pandemic we are experiencing. Our town, like many others across the country, is pretty much split politically, but when disaster strikes, everyone comes together. Since COVID-19 first struck, we have been able to raise tens of thousands of dollars to help our residents in need, assisting with food, utilities, and PPE—even attempting to help our local businesses survive.

I have often been asked if I ever regret leaving a lucrative private business to get into government. My answer is always the same—I wish I had joined this great profession many years earlier.

 JAY FEYLER is town manager of Union, Maine (townmanager@union.maine.gov).

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