BELFAST, Maine — When Erin Herbig was sworn in as Belfast’s new city manager on March 9, 2020, she was facing such pressing, but ordinary, issues as drafting the budget and working on finding resolutions to some ongoing development disputes.
But a week later, the novel coronavirus pandemic upended life in Maine, and quotidian issues were suddenly eclipsed by a constellation of problems that no one had imagined.
On March 12, the state had its first presumptive positive case of the new virus, and on March 15, Gov. Janet Mills declared a civil state of emergency, which recommended ending classroom instruction in schools as soon as possible, restricting visitors to long-term care facilities and postponing all events with 50 or more people until further notice. That was followed in quick succession by cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day events and closing all restaurants and bars to dine-in customers.
“It kind of came at us like a freight train,” Herbig, 40, said this week. “This was literally my second week on the job. It was like, how do we do that? I will also say my councilors and my mayor immediately thought, how is this going to impact our community? How are we going to respond? How are we going to be there for people?”
The list of questions — many of which had no clear answer — seemed to go on and on. They heard a lot of them because early on, officials made the decision to close City Hall to the public to help keep staff members safe. But it was still open for business. And at the recommendation of the City Council, Belfast replaced its recorded phone message with a live person who answered calls.
That turned into a de facto hotline.
“A lot of time, we’d be answering questions that weren’t really city of Belfast questions,” Herbig said. “People would call here for things like unemployment questions, or questions about their business, or, ‘Can I go out in my backyard?’ ‘Do I have to quarantine?’ Over the last year, we had to answer a lot of those questions. And we had to be upfront about saying, ‘We don’t know.’”
She didn’t have previous on-the-job experience as a city manager, and was new to city government when she replaced longtime city manager Joe Slocum, who retired after 13 years at Belfast City Hall. Herbig, a Belfast native, had spent the previous decade serving in state government as a four-term state representative, including one term as House majority leader, and one term as state senator representing Waldo County.
But she did have a background as a leader and wasn’t afraid to ask for information and help. That’s what happened when the city was frighteningly low on personal protective equipment, which it needed for the paramedics and emergency medical technicians who served as ambulance crew. Two of the crew members were even sewing cloth gowns because the city didn’t have enough.
“People were sending me emails that said, ‘Congratulations on your new job,’” Herbig said. “I was going through and responding to them … with ‘Oh, thank you very much, and actually do you happen to know how I can get some more PPEs?’”
She also took people up on their offers to help, especially Bucksport Town Manager Sue Lessard, “who has tremendous experience,” Herbig said, and Slocum, who had told her to call if she needed anything.
“I have called him so many times,” she said.
Something else that helped was that although she was new to the position, she was not new to the city. She already knew local elected officials and most of the people who worked at City Hall.
“It was a real benefit that people had given me the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “They knew where I was coming from, and that I was only looking out for the city of Belfast.”
Herbig said that early on, Belfast Fire Chief Jim Richards told her a story from his own experience that resonated with her. A major fire broke out in downtown Belfast less than 48 hours after he had been appointed chief, eventually destroying seven businesses.
“He told me emergencies are not the time to doubt yourself or the people around you,” Herbig wrote in a manager’s report last year. “He reminded me that, like he was when he was hired, I was surrounded by knowledgeable, hard-working, dedicated members of this community whose experience I could lean on. He was right.”
Those qualities helped make it more possible to quickly address critical needs that sprung up. One problem was that small businesses were hurting for cash. Another was the fact that there was often a gap between when people stopped working and when they began to receive unemployment.
So City Council members had the idea to create the Keep the Faith Fund to help fill these gaps, and Herbig and city staff scrambled to get it put into place fast. Through the fund, which was supported by the city and also by private individuals, the city gave $500 grants to 159 businesses — a total of nearly $80,000. They also gave about $7,000 in grocery vouchers to 138 adults and 177 children.
“We were able to launch it in a week, which was crazy,” Herbig said. “It was sort of like all hands on deck, to make sure we were there for people. It certainly was a real deviation from business as usual.”
Mayor Eric Sanders said that in his view, Herbig hit the ground running.
“Her ideas have been really clear and clean and proactive,” he said. “She cares. She’s from Belfast and she’s passionate about Belfast.”
Another decision that was made in a hurry was the creation of the Curbside Belfast program, which allowed downtown restaurants and stores to use nearby parking spaces for outside dining and shopping. The city, which Herbig believes was the first municipality in the state to adopt such a program, put it together in a week, too. It was popular, and the city is working on making it permanent.
The city manager has heard from restaurateurs who have said that the program helped them survive last year.
“That was a really good feeling,” she said.
As elected officials and staff raced to develop these programs and find other ways to help local businesses and citizens, there was a sense of teamwork, Herbig said.
And while some Maine communities are littered with “vacancy” and “out of business” signs, so far, Belfast seems to have largely survived with its downtown — and spirit — intact.
“That’s been the most rewarding thing — how well we work together to be creative and problem solve,” she said. “It felt like we were all rowing in the same direction, and that felt good.”