"Hardy" Help at Town Office

(from Maine Townsman, July 2009)
By Liz Chapman Mockler

Neville Hardy

It’s 2 p.m. Do you know where your first selectman is?

If you live on Deer Isle, you know exactly were to find Neville Hardy; right where he’s been for 35 years.

At the town office.

Hardy, 70, represents one of the many traditions of municipal government which sets Maine apart from most other states in the union -- an elected official who performs both executive and administration functions for the town carrying out the policies of the legislative body (town meeting) and providing administrative guidance to town employees.

In addition to Hardy’s dedication to holding selectmen office hours from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. four days a week, the three-member board also meets on Thursday evenings.

“We just couldn’t (get the town business done) coming in on a Friday night,” Hardy said recently of the past practice by selectmen.

“The issues and duties were too complicated,” he told the Maine Townsman, noting in particular the need to keep property tax records up-to-date and the bills out on time.

Deer Isle has other attributes in common with many other small Maine towns: It still runs on a calendar year budget; it holds an annual town meeting in March that empowers voters to make the final decision on nearly all budget items; and the selectmen really do act as tax assessors every April, with pad and paper and measuring tape in hand.

NEEDED CHANGE

When Hardy was first elected 41 years ago as third selectman, town office hours didn’t exist -- and shortly thereafter the town office itself disappeared, a victim of an arson fire that remains unsolved today.

Three years later, Hardy ran for second selectman. And after one term in that seat, he was elected first selectman and took over the day-to-day demands of operating a small island community whose population swells from 1,900 year-round residents to about 5,000 during the summer.

In 1968, when Hardy was elected for the first time, the town did not even have island property mapped out -- neither parcels nor what sat on them. There was constant confusion and continuous complaints from homeowners who were upset because they did not understand how their tax bills were calculated since there weren’t even tax maps. They got an annual bill and were required to pay it, regardless.

“They had no way of knowing how the town got the valuation numbers and that wasn’t good,” said Hardy, who tends to understate most everything in a quiet but confident way that obviously has served him well over his long municipal career.

When Hardy took office in 1969, he advocated that the town conduct its first-ever revaluation. The project was illuminating, literally.

“We found a lot of land and structures that we had no way of knowing who even owned them,” he said.

Since then, selectmen update property values each year and contract with a Bangor assessor who updates the tax maps annually.

“We really didn’t do (a revaluation) until the state got after us, because it’s a lot of work,” Hardy recalled.

Also at that time, selectmen tended to do what many did 40 years ago in small-town New England: Visit a selectman at his general store to get questions answered and find out about new local laws and rules.

Oh yes, and the latest town gossip, too.

Selectmen did not keep minutes back then, either, Hardy said, all of which both disturbed him and inspired him to seek changes in the way the town conducted its business, held elected and appointed officials accountable, and communicated with the public.

“I didn’t think it was really good, or proper,” Hardy said. “I figured (residents) needed somewhere to go to get information and help, so we opened up here” at the town office as soon as he was sworn in as first selectman in 1976.

Over the years, Hardy worked awhile for a lumber mill in Bangor, drove a truck for a Stonington sardine factory, patrolled the island and its environs as a deputy sheriff, and drove a school bus before retiring “a good long time ago.”

A Vietnam veteran, Hardy also ran his own general store for a dozen years or so, but refused to operate it as an arm of local government.

Hardy also handles most of the road commissioner responsibilities, overseeing both winter and summer work with three employees. He volunteers for the fire department, has served on the Hancock County Budget Committee for a decade, as well as being named as the island’s representative on the county 911 committee.

“I like helping the people,” he said.

TODAY’S CHALLENGES

Although Hardy has seen countless large and small changes over the years, including transitioning from a typewriter to a computer only a decade ago (he doesn’t do email), he said the biggest challenge for the town today is trying to keep pace with critical -- and expensive -- road work.

Selectmen decided many years ago to take over winter plowing of Maine Route 15, the only primary road through the island which leads to Stonington and then stops at the Atlantic.

Hardy said the state did the best it could to keep the state road passable, but town crews were unable to clear local roads until the state snowplows came through first.

It was not pretty. Residents, many who make a living working out of town, complained about being snowed in and forced out of work. The town’s small public works staff kept the town-owned secondary roads clear, but people were just barreling into drifts once they hit the mouth of the state road.

The state now pays the town to keep Route 15 plowed, while Deer Isle residents have supported selectmen’s annual plans to systematically pave and repair town roads in the summer.

“We pave sections every year and rebuild the worst ones,” Hardy said. “If you fall behind, you just can’t get caught up.”

The town relies almost entirely on boat and vehicle excise taxes to pave, maintain and plow roads. Sand and salt alone cost $100,000 a year, he said.

A statewide referendum in November calling for a dramatic reduction in excise taxes would be devastating to the island community, Hardy said.

If the referendum were to pass, “that would not be good,” he said quietly.

Hardy has served longer than most elected and appointed municipal officials working in Maine today. He remembers the days when residents “packed the gym” for the annual town meeting and took an active role in the local school budget. There also were far more contested local races and the lack of challengers keeps many voters home on election day, he said.

Today, turnout is often small for the annual town meetings -- another fact of small-town life in Maine that Deer Isle shares with some of its counterparts. Few residents turn out to vote on the local school budget -- the single costliest budget line for the taxpayers, he said.

This spring, 35 townspeople attended the public hearing on the Deer Isle-Stonington school budget; the actual balloting attracted 45 voters, Hardy said.

“We used to fill the gym when we tried to get (school) budget cuts,” he said, adding that the tax bills clearly spell out that school and county government costs more than all other operations of the town.

When asked if he was disappointed by the low voter turnout, he said, “I guess probably,” but added, “We hope that means (taxpayers) think things are going okay.”

Even at 70, Hardy said he plans to stick around a while longer. Although only challenged for re-election a few times in four decades, the last election three years ago was much different because his opponent mailed out brochures and posted election signs around the island in an effort to unseat him.

He said he will seek re-election again next March, when his current term expires. “I’ve seen a lot of people come and go,” he said, “but I’m not ready to go yet.”

 

Liz Chapman Mockler is a freelance writer and media advisor from Augusta.