June 20, 2018
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Closing Houlton revenue office is tripping over dollars to pick up dimes

By James W. Brown Jr., Special to the BDN

The pending closure of the Maine Revenue Services office in Houlton disturbs me on several levels.

The callous and drastic disruption of the careers and lives of those staffing that office as a reward for high productivity, dedication, and excellence is an affront to the people of the state of Maine — those served and those serving.

Although a sign in southern Maine proclaims that Maine is open for business, the current administration now proposes to eliminate 12 “good” jobs in an area of the state that has been bleeding population since 1960. If 12 comparable slots in either the public or private sector existed in the Houlton area as they might elsewhere, the impact of the closure might be mitigated. Unfortunately, the Maine Revenue Services positions represent a sizable portion of a limited availability of quality, but by no means lucrative, employment available within the southern Aroostook area.

For those making the “shock and awe” announcement to suggest that the Houlton jobs could be done by just five additional workers in Augusta simply does not pass the straight face test.

Maine Revenue Services, during the attempted closure of the Houlton office in 2007, acknowledged that there were customarily several vacancies at any time in its Augusta staffing complement. The need to regularly recruit, train and endure the resulting loss of efficiency and productivity as new employees gain experience seems to belie the claim that Augusta could be more efficient and less costly than the long-tenured Houlton staff.

The further suggestion that the absence of walk-in service at the Houlton facility could be construed as negative strains credulity. The Houlton employees, although tasked with a type of specialized work that does not necessarily mesh well with the interruptions inherent in providing walk-in service, have indicated a willingness and ability to do so if deemed by Maine Revenue Services to be beneficial to the public.

Similarly, the suggestion that the leased facility housing the Houlton office is deficient in terms of security required by IRS for proper operation, a premise disputed by the union representing the employees, seems to be misdirecting attention.

Leased space for governmental services generally is secured through a request for proposals issued by the state, stipulating criteria such as square-footage requirements, amenities, parking and other matters related to the proper functioning of the office. Those with facilities meeting the criteria submit proposals, and the state selects the best option in terms of compliance and cost. If, in fact, adequate security is not present in the Houlton facility, was it a failure of Maine Revenue Services to require it in a request for proposals, a failure to contract for it separate from a property lease, or was it an attempt to simply continue to “get by” as it has successfully since 1999?

Regrettably, the loss of the Maine Revenue Services positions easily could mean further out-migration from Aroostook County, a prospect no one wants to contemplate. Continued loss of educated, energetic, talented, and family-oriented young people for the primary purpose of finding a job commensurate with their aspirations and abilities already is showing shifts in the culture of the region.

The Maine Revenue Services jobs have allowed the Houlton employees to use their education, experience, and skills to live and work affordably in an area they love, while raising families in a clean, safe environment. Although the numbers are small, their impact is great. It would be a tragedy to lose them to expedience.

James W. Brown Jr. of Presque Isle is a retired 35-year public sector employee who worked 14 years as a municipal director of economic and community development.

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