Penobscot County Administrator Bill Collins had been on the job two weeks in September 2002 when he went to late Commissioner Tom Davis and said, “You’ve made a big mistake. I’ve made a big mistake. This is not going to work.”
Davis put his arm around Collins, flashed a consoling grin and assured the Bangor native that he was just what the county needed in its first manager.
Now 66, Collins will retire next month after more than 18 years on the job. When Collins was hired, his professional history was in business, not government. Prior to 2000, county clerks oversaw the day-to-day operations in Maine’s 16 counties but they had little authority to make decisions without going to the commissioners for approval.
Register of Deeds Susan Bulay described Collins as “always reachable, always approachable, even tempered, compassionate and no fool.” She said those qualities helped Penobscot County commissioners go from micromanaging to letting Collins do the job.
“Bill was able to work through it and now there is a great working relationship between him, the commissioners, other elected officials and the department heads,” she said. “A different personality would never have been able to make such a great transition from a county clerk to a county administrator.”
Collins said that many of the challenges he faced in the early years were organizational and technical in nature. The county had no finance, information technology or human resource departments. The computers and the software it used were out of date and the building, completed in 1903, was energy inefficient and crowded.
With a background in finance, Collins started by implementing a financial system, purchasing accounting software, upgrading the county’s computer hardware and making sure the lines of communication were always open. He also urged commissioners to share their differences but, in the end, to speak to the public with one voice.
From left (clockwise): Penobscot County Administrator Bill Collins speaks about his upcoming retirement after 20 years on the job while sitting in his office at the historic Penobscot County Courthouse in Bangor on Nov. 20. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN
Over the years, Collins worked with six commissioners — Davis of Kenduskeag, who died in August 2018 at the age of 81, Peter Baldacci of Bangor, Richard Blanchard of Old Town, Stephen Stanley of Medway, Laura Sanborn of Alton and Andre Cushing of Newport. Baldacci and Sanborn, both Democrats, and Cushing, a Republican, are the current commissioners.
“I’ve appreciated that in Penobscot County, our commissioners walk through the door not wearing their party affiliations,” Collins said. “But there are three commissioners who each have different personalities and different opinions on what’s right and what will work. We’ve been able to speak with one voice with few exceptions.”
One of those exceptions was in August when Baldacci broke ranks to reverse his position on the construction of a new jail. The commissioner said that he supported remodeling or building an addition to the facility. Baldacci, who previously endorsed a new facility, changed his position without discussing it with his fellow commissioners.
Collins considers one his most successful projects to be the reorganization of departments within the county building after the court in 2009 moved to the new Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor. The county administrator spearheaded negotiations with the U.S. Postal Service that led to a 99-year lease for a portion of the old District Court.
Baldacci called the upgrade of the 911 center and its move from the basement of the district court to the third floor of the courthouse “one of Bill’s significant accomplishments.”
“It has saved our towns and cities thousands of taxpayer dollars and provides superior emergency service to the entire county,” he said.
Collins also oversaw upgrades to the building including new windows, a switch from oil heat to natural gas, and other projects that have made the building more energy efficient. Some of that work was paid for with federal grants. Under his leadership, county workers now are healthier and insurance rates are lower due to employee-led efforts that included obtaining used equipment for a fitness center along with weight loss and smoking cessation programs.
“He has an outstanding analytical mind and the ability to withdraw himself from the various bias perspectives of any situation and report back with the specifically accurate data needed to make a decision,” Sanborn said.
Collins, however, is leaving without solving the county’s biggest problem — an overcrowded jail. A plan to construct a new eight-story, 250-bed jail on the former YMCA site at a cost of between $50 million and $60 million was put on hold in February, after several Bangor residents, business owners and city counselors criticized the proposal.
“When I arrived here, we weren’t overly populated,” he said. “But over the past decade, the drug situation has increased and the number of mental health beds has decreased. Rightfully or wrongfully, the jail now houses people who should be in other locations.”
Baldacci is the current commissioner who’s worked with Collins the longest. But Cushing, who was appointed to replace Davis and elected unopposed this year, has known Collins longest. The two attended John Bapst Memorial High School together.
“I have found him to always be pretty even-keeled and he has thought through many aspects of a situation when he presents it to the commissioners,” Cushing said.
The county’s regional dispatch director, Chris Lavoie, felt like Davis first did in his job after he being promoted to head the 911 center, the busiest in the state. Lavoie said when he started, he “was afraid of making mistakes and failing.”
“Bill reassured me that he was going to be there for me and help me get through the transition,” Lavoie said. “He has been a huge asset and help to me — the best boss I’ve ever had.”
Collins, who lives in Orrington, said he plans to spend more time with his four grandchildren, who are between the ages of 8 and 2. He also will focus on hobbies of collecting coins and baseball cards. Erika Honey, the county’s human resources director, will take over as administrator in late December.