When Dan L’Heureux was hired at the start of 1996, the China Select Board had two primary goals for the new town manager. First, they were looking to foster more economic development in the town. Second, they wanted someone who could achieve a stable mil (tax) rate that could be maintained even during tough economic times.
Based on just these two criteria, Dan’s tenure as town manager has been a huge success.
“If you plan long-term, and you work that plan, you can’t go wrong,” Dan told me when I asked him the secret to his success. “You plan for the bad times during the good times.”
This philosophy is apparent in every decision he’s made as town manager. Whether it’s the establishment of the TIF (tax increment financing) fund that will finance more than eight million dollars in economic development over its 30-year lifespan, or the purchase of snow plows that might cost more upfront but will save the town money in the long-run, Dan’s always thinking long-term.
The result is a town that’s in better shape than perhaps any time in its history. With no debt, capital assets that are in good shape, and a surplus that will see the town through any unforeseen emergencies, Dan is leaving the town in an enviable position for his successor.
“Dan knows finances,” Selectman Irene Belanger told me. But Dan’s financial savvy isn’t the only reason he is so beloved in the town of China. “Dan is compassionate,” Irene also said.
Recently retired selectman Joann Austin explained further. “He takes all that stuff that gets thrown at the town office, at the town government,” she said, “and he responds and listens, but he doesn’t react. He’s warm and he listens. He’s really quite heroic.”
Perhaps part of it is Dan’s humility. He defines his role as town manager as a supportive one. “The Select Board steers the ship,” he told me. “As managers, we provide the support. We do the research – meticulous and comprehensive research – that allows them to make the best decisions for the town.”
And he isn’t shy about spreading the credit around. “The Select Board and budget committees have been excellent stewards,” he said. “And you can accomplish a lot with good employees. Ours are superior!”
Finding just one thing that defines Dan’s legacy as town manager is not easy. One could point to the transfer station. A well-oiled machine and the envy of neighboring towns, China’s transfer station has maintained a nearly flat budget over the years despite numerous improvements and additions.
One could point to the many ways Dan has saved the town money. His talent in applying for grants has saved residents more than a million dollars over the last two decades. Those grants have funded everything from the building of the salt/sand shed and recycling center at the transfer station, to the sidewalk project in South China; the restoration of the historic one-room schoolhouse in Weeks Mills, to the tree cleanup after the 1998 ice storm. Dan knows how to get more done with less.
At Dan’s final selectmen’s meeting on June 25, Neil Farrington invited him to offer a few words. In response, Dan related how he’d had four criteria when considering whether to take the town manager’s position back in 1996: he was looking for a job that had the support of his family; he wanted to like the work he would be doing; he hoped to find a team he’d enjoy working with (and hopefully would like him in return); and finally, he wanted to like the people he was working for (the Select Board and the residents of the Town of China). His job as China town manager, he said, had fulfilled all four of those criteria. The past 22 years had been exceptionally rewarding for him, and he hoped that feeling was mutual.
On Saturday, June 30, the China Select Board presented Dan with a Spirit of America award for his more than two decades of service to the town.
What’s up next for the new retiree? “People say you shouldn’t make any decisions for six months after you retire,” he responds with a laugh.
Although he now lives in Waterville, wherever life takes him next, Dan L’Heureux will always find a home in the Town of China, Maine.
Eric W. Austin lives in China, Maine. He writes about technology and community issues and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.