Originally published in Castine Patriot, October 18, 2018 and Island Ad-Vantages, October 18, 2018 and The Weekly Packet, October 18, 2018
Election 2018: County Commissioner
by Rich Hewitt
Includes: Brooklin, Brooksville, Bucksport, Castine, Dedham, Deer Isle, Orland, Penobscot, Sedgwick, Stonington, and Verona.
Percy Brown, Republican, incumbent
Percy Brown is completing his fifth term as a county commissioner.
The Republican incumbent on the county commission is a Deer Isle native and he still lives on the island where he is vice president of Percy L. Brown Inc., the family plumbing, heating and fuel business. He says he’s seeking another three-year term because he enjoys the work and can make things happen.
“I can make a difference,” he says. “I’m interested in the property tax and what people get for the property tax they pay. If I was in the Legislature, I don’t think I’d have as big an impact as I do as a county commissioner.”
Brown was instrumental in establishing the Hancock County Workforce Recovery Program working with Eastern Maine Development Corp. and the Open Door Recovery Program. Utilizing community benefit funds from wind farm operations in the unorganized territories, the program helps county jail inmates with substance abuse issues, with job training and provides help in finding a job. The program started in 2017 and so far, 52 inmates have gone through the program which is also open to people not in jail.
“The program doesn’t get a lot of publicity, but it is very effective,” Brown says. “They get out sober, EMDC gives them the training they need to apply for a job and then helps them to get the job.”
One of the best features of the program is that the $100,000 price tag is paid for from the wind farm money, Brown says, at no cost to county taxpayers.
The commissioners also use wind farm money to focus on secondary education in the unorganized territories and, according to Brown, this year they were able to draw on Tax Increment Financing funds from the Bull Hill project to provide a full scholarship for a county student to go to Husson University.
Brown says part of his focus as commissioner has been to ensure that county residents get good value for the taxes they pay. He says his business background has been helpful in making county government more efficient. As an example, he points to the commissioners’ decision several years ago to convert all the county boilers from #2 oil to propane, saving the county between $30,000 and $50,000 on its fuel bills.
The county’s buildings are always an issue the commissioners have to deal with and Brown notes that one of the things they will have to do in the coming year is put a new roof on the court house. The Regional Communications Center is an ongoing program that the commissioners are looking at the possibility of expanding to offer dispatching for other county communities.
Over the past six or so years, the jail has been a constant question mark for the commissioners, and Brown says it appears that will continue.
“We just don’t know what’s coming from the state,” he says. “We could lose [state] financing, and if that happens, it’s going to fall on the property tax payers.”
The state court system also is making changes and the county will have to adapt to those changes, Brown says.
Overall, Brown says, he wants to work with the other two commissioners to make county government more effective and efficient.
“My goal when I first ran for county commissioner was to make it more efficient, to improve the service of county government at a reasonable cost to the taxpayers,” he says.
John Wombacher, Democrat
John Wombacher is the Democratic candidate for the county commissioner’s seat.
Wombacher lives with his wife and daughter in Bucksport where he and his wife run Sundial Studio, a photography and framing business. He also works as a supervisor at Home Depot.
Although raised in a politically engaged household, Wombacher said he’d never considered running for public office until 2016 when he was inspired by Bernie Sanders’ call for “regular” people to get involved.
“It’s good to have regular, average, everyday people involved, and it’s good to get new voices and new ideas into the mix,” he says.
He ran unsuccessfully for the House seat in 2016, but says he enjoyed the campaign, the opportunity to talk with people from around the region, and so looked for another way to become involved. County government offers that opportunity, he says. The different facets of county government make the role of county commissioner interesting, Wombacher says. In his view, the budget will be a key item for the county commissioners to focus on in the coming years.
“It seems like one of the biggest issues is the increasing health care costs for county employees and how the county can keep those costs controlled,” he says. “There are also public safety issues. The buildings need to be maintained and the county roads have to be maintained; the jail and the court house have to be kept up and safe.”
County expenditures need to be scrutinized carefully in order to keep the budget in line, he adds.
Public safety—through the RCC emergency dispatch, the sheriff’s department and the jail—is a big part of the commissioners’ job, but Wombacher says he believes the commissioners also need to focus on land use and environmental protection in the unorganized territories in Hancock County. He’s particularly concerned about the idea of a pipeline corridor in the county and the effect it might have on the county’s lands.
“The commissioners need to weigh in on all different aspects of these projects,” he says. “We need to ask developers a lot of questions and do our homework on the issues. We need to look at the foreseen and unforeseen effects on the land use and the environment.”
Wombacher stresses that he is not anti-development and, in fact, thinks the commissioners need to play a bigger role in economic development in the county. He says he’d like to see more high value jobs and more green jobs coming into the county.
“The county commissioners can use their position to encourage new economic growth with an eye for the future,’’ he says. “We can encourage that new technology and still protect the county’s assets. If we could encourage that kind of green technology within the county and still protect the environment, I’d like to be a part of that.”
Wombacher says the county has made good use of the community benefit funds that have been generated by wind farms developed in the unorganized territories and would like to see those types of projects continue. He sees those funds providing an opportunity for the county to fund short-term projects that will change from year to year.
“Commissioners need to be flexible enough to see what individual towns ask for and what they see as obstacles where the county can lend a helping hand to correct problems,” he says.