Harden cites experience in re-election bid
Rockland — Incumbent Mayor Brian Harden argues now is the time for continuity and experience on Rockland's City Council in part because the community has a new city manager.
Harden is being challenged in this race by Frank Isganitis and Harold "Dale" Hayward. He has served on the council 12 years.
"I think there are times when change is good and there are times when continuity is what you want," he said during a Sept. 24 interview at city hall. "This is a time when you want continuity. We have a new city manager. He will have been here six months at the end of the month."
Harden said City Manager James Smith is doing very well, but Rockland has complicated issues for him to learn about. In some cases, he said, the city, which serves as county seat and service center, has big city issues for a relatively small community. Rockland's population swells during the day during the work week, and it has a full-sized harbor and a large landfill.
Harden said he was born in Rockland and it is the only home he has ever loved. Having lived here most of his 65 years, he said he understands the issues and quirks unique to the city.
He said the city is overtaxed because it has to provide services and infrastructure not only for its own residents but for the surrounding region.
"We have to take care of the people who don't pay property taxes," he said. "We have to rescue them, we have to arrest them, we have to keep the roads fixed, we have to take care of all that infrastructure for all the extra people who live in the towns around us, but who don't pay property tax."
He said he has tried in his time on the council to work away from property tax to fee-based services.
"You spread that money out over everybody, including everybody who's tax exempt," he said. "...if we're going to stabilize taxes, we have to go away from property tax covering everything."
"Our first big success with that has been the transfer station and landfill," he said. "That is now off the property tax."
He said charging dump fees has taken a large amount off the city tax rolls and commercial haulers are now paying by the ton to use the landfill.
Fees could be expanded to charge nonprofit organizations fees for city services and provide relief for property taxpayers, he said, but that will require cooperation from the Legislature to allow such fees. At present, the city is blocked by state law from charging nonprofits in this way.
Some states allow such fees, he said.
"If you vote for me, you're going to get more work on that because I know about it, I talk to people in other communities about it and that's where experience helps," he said.
He said he has been working on the service center issue throughout his time in office.
Could fat be trimmed from the budget?
Harden said he fought the increase in sewer rates in the city. The increase that was approved was half of what was originally proposed, he said.
"I'm sensitive to increases in taxes, fees and rates," he said. "...I fought that increase and we chopped it in half."
In general, Harden said it is not easy to find places to cut the budget. To reduce taxes by one mil, he said, you would have to cut $770,000, which is more than some entire department budgets.
The candidate said he has been working for years to change city employee benefits to be more in line with private sector jobs. That could mean employees paying more into their benefits, however he noted some employee contracts are still being negotiated with unions.
Harden said he has helped stabilize local government during his tenure on the council, keeping the council focused on policy rather than day-to-day operations. Over the years, there have been different styles of city council, he said. Some city councils have micromanaged the city manager. Others have allowed the city manager to do the job as a trained professional with the council sticking to policy issues, he said.
"Councilors used to go right into the fire house and tell them how to fight fires," he said.
Harden said he has always favored letting the manager do his or her job.
"Where we need to be right now is job retention," Harden said.
He noted that Walmart is leaving Camden Street in Rockland and moving to Thomaston where a supercenter is planned just across the town line.
"We need to fill that building as quickly as we can," he said of the soon-to-be-vacant Camden Street store. "That is a priority."
Harden said his is a record of job creation. He fought hard, he said, to work with FMC and keep jobs in the city while other councilors were trying to make doing business here very difficult.
He also supported Fisher Engineering expanding in Rockland and he said he worked to help Boston Financial reuse the MBNA building.
The candidate cited several examples.
Harden said he understands first-hand the problems caused by downtown construction projects in recent years because he works as business manager at The Reading Corner bookstore on Main Street. He said he and other city officials met with business leaders downtown to answer questions and hear concerns, and that led to making the business people feel better about the project.
He said the streetscape project is almost finished and work will continue at the parks at the ends of Main Street including the Winslow Holbrook Park at the intersection with Park Street.
Use of city property
Harden said Rockland needs a more consistent policy for use of public property and fees for using city parks for commercial purposes.
In the spring, the controversy erupted at council meetings over the Brass Compass seeking to use part of Winslow-Holbrook Memorial Park for tables as it has in past summer seasons. The use was opposed by some local veterans and businesses who felt the policy and fees for use were unfair.
"The petition we had about the Brass Compass this year specifically said that businesses were upset because the space was being leased at such a low price," he said. He said he believes they were happy when the council charged a higher price.
On the other hand, the city has given Dunkin Donuts use of another park free, he said. That's inconsistent, he said, so his goal is to find a consistent policy and apply it fairly to everyone.
Rockland City Council is as far as Harden's political ambitions go. He said many seek city council seats as a stepping stone to running for Legislature, but he has never wanted that for himself. This allows him to focus on local issues exclusively, he said.
He said he only goes to Augusta when a state level decision is going to affect Rockland.
"I care about Rockland," he said. "It's in my blood. I'm a Rockland historian. I have been for 35-40 years. I've always thought Rockland was equal to any community on the coast as far as being a good destination."
Harden said he will soon retire from his job at the Reading Corner and will be on a fixed income like so many other Rockland residents.
"Just because I've turned 65 doesn't mean I need to be put out to pasture," he said with a laugh.
Harden is also a director with the Rockland Historical Society and a council member at the Congregational Church.