JAY — Town Manager Shiloh LaFreniere thought something was wrong last week when she was asked to step outside a room for a phone call during the New England Leadership Institute held at Sunday River.
She found out later she was being recognized by the Maine Town, City and County Management Association with the Rising Star Award on Aug. 9.
The award is given to a public administrator who has been in the profession for five years or less. It is designed to recognize a new administrator who has done a “particularly good job in the community and provide encouragement to stay in the profession,” according to the nomination form.
The administrator may have resolved a difficult problem, provided strong leadership during a crisis or brought new vitality and professionalism to a community.
“I’m very honored to receive the award from a group of peers who understand what you are going through,” LaFreniere said.
She credits her achieving the award to the many people around her — her family, her department heads and the other employees, the select board and the citizens that she works for.
Right from her first day on the job three and a half years ago, she was faced with going through the first full appraisal of the Verso Androscoggin LLC’s paper mill and related equipment since 1997. She stepped into the position when the first of three property tax abatement requests from Verso was filed.
She has seen the mill’s value continue to decline along with the town’s valuation. She has twice applied for a Sudden and Severe Disruption of Valuation Program to have the state lower the town’s certified valuation and received them. It brought in more state revenue-sharing and education subsidy to offset tax rates in 2016-17 and 2017-18. She will submit a third application for 2018-19.
LaFreniere has guided the town through abatement processes, appeals and Verso, taking those appeals away from a state board to Bankruptcy Court for a decision in 2016. The town and the company reached a settlement of $4 million for the three years disputed, which was more than $7 million less than what the company said it was owed.
She has watched as the company shut down three paper machines and related equipment and more than 400 employees lost their jobs. She did what she could to help bring in resources to aid those workers to find other jobs.
LaFreniere was forced to make some hard decisions as she worked with town employees, selectpersons and the Budget Committee to downsize town government and make “significant” budget cuts, which included eliminating positions. She is currently working with selectpersons on negotiations of employee union contracts that are expected to save the town money.
She also wrote a grant for $250,000 and received it from the Northern Border Regional Commission to rebuild a section of Old Jay Hill Road to accommodate heavy equipment and materials going over the road for a new business in North Jay. Bids for the project are scheduled to be opened Aug. 30 and be awarded Sept. 5.
“There are still a lot of good things happening in our community and we lose focus of that,” LaFreniere said, including new businesses like Polycor coming to town.
Even before she became town manager, she was the town’s environmental code administrator and code enforcement officer and helped out in the Finance Department. She has worked for the town for 20 years.
LaFreniere said she pursued the town manager position because she had worked in so many facets of town government and knew the people involved.
“It is the town I grew up in. I care for my community and I want to see the best for it,” she said Monday.
Through it all, LaFreniere said, she has learned that “change is difficult, even when it is necessary.”