Residents, co-workers credit Town Manager Jeff Gahagan with helping Milo heal

MILO, Maine - Town Manager Jeff Gahagan on a recent day finished a spirited discussion with a selectman on economic development, fielded a half-dozen telephone calls, visited his employees, had a discussion with an oil company about the town hall furnace, and drank coffee with firefighters - all by midmorning.

Gahagan, 55, uses the guise of needing a coffee fix around 6 a.m. when he meets with firefighters each day to learn about issues in the community that haven't come across his desk.

"The firefighters are very much attuned to the town," he said during a recent interview.

For Gahagan, having that daily face-to-face contact with his employees is important, not only to ensure projects are moving smoothly but also to improve morale after a couple of tumultuous years.

Since the former banker took the town manager position in March 2008, Gahagan has handled more crises than most town officials do in their entire careers. His job start came in the midst of a contentious rift between the former town manager and some selectmen that ultimately led to the manager's dismissal. The former town manager sued the town over that action and her lawsuit is pending.

A few months later, Gahagan recalled, he was standing on the lawn of a bank watching a fire consume five downtown stores and damage a sixth.

"I remember thinking, 'I can't believe a third of the town is burning down before our eyes,'" he said. "That was just a horrible moment."

Earlier this year, the former police chief resigned after being arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife. The former chief later pleaded no contest to stalking and to improper influence.

"It just seemed like one thing after another, and to maintain morale and keep moving in a positive direction sometimes seemed quite difficult," Gahagan said. He credited his Board of Selectmen, who he said "stopped the bleeding" and got people focused on the future.

But others have credited Gahagan, who also serves as health officer and constable, for healing the wounds.

"Jeff tries to take too much on his shoulders," Richard Mullins, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said recently during a visit with Gahagan. "He's done a fantastic job; we've accomplished a lot in a short period of time."

Mullins said he wished he could lift some of the "extracurricular activities" that Gahagan involves himself in because Mullins feels they are too cumbersome. As he made that statement, Gahagan took a telephone call about a woman who had a mold problem in her house. The town manager reassured the caller that he'd work to help find a resolution.

Gahagan would have it no other way. He's there to help the town's residents, he said.

"If I hear a call for police and it's a dangerous one, I'll stick my nose in it," he said. He considers his scanner an important tool.

Mullins said that if one were to total the hours Gahagan works and divided them into his salary, Gahagan would be getting very little per hour for his work.

But to Gahagan, everything has its importance - from senior citizens who are having trouble paying their taxes to an employee with health problems to strengthening ties with the town's neighbors.

"The town has absolutely terrific neighbors," Gahagan said.

He said Brownville and Milo town officials have a good relationship and they do things to help each other. When the town's recreation director resigned last summer, Brownville shared its recreation director with Milo and offered some joint programs.

"It's really imperative that [relationship] continue," he said.

Gahagan also has a good relationship with his 67 full- and part-time employees. Outside the occasional box of doughnuts he provides, Gahagan makes it a point to praise them for a job well done and work with them when they encounter a problem.

That praise is a two-way street. Employees and selectmen credit Gahagan for working to update the personnel policy, for searching for grants and space to replace the cramped town garage, pushing forward improvements to the library and town hall, working to expand the tax base and trying to change the town's image as one ridden with crime.

"Jeff is excellent to work for," Robin Larson, town treasurer, said recently. "He's visible in the community and the town office."

Glen Ricker, public works director, agreed. "He's real good to work with," he said.

Gahagan is quick to point out that his employees save the town money using their experiences. As examples, he said Larson is the "gatekeeper" of finances who keeps a tight rein on expenses and Ricker does a lot of mechanic work on the town's equipment, which reduces costs.

Keeping expenses low is a necessity for residents, many of whom are on fixed incomes, Gahagan said. "I've done their banking [in the past] and I know how difficult it is for them to get their tax bills in March," he said.

Selectmen also are very tuned in to the poverty level that exists in the community, according to Gahagan. Milo's unemployment rate, calculated earlier this year at 12.8 percent, matches Piscataquis County's, the highest in the state. The town of about 2,400 recently had an economic stress index score of 13.32 in June, the highest in Maine. Grappling with such conditions is difficult.

"The selectmen try to do the best for the entire town but there's always a few who would disagree," Gahagan said. "Having a strong board makes all the difference in the world for a town manager."

Gahagan said the town also is fortunate to have a vast pool of volunteers who serve on the various committees. He called it heartwarming.

"I love this community and the people here and I really enjoy the work I do," Gahagan said.

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