Friday, February 9, 2001
Selectmen speak about change and challenges
Growth has changed the face of Carlisle town government and presented a variety of new challenges to the town's selectmen. They are on the front lines as the town wrestles with issues such as effectively organizing town government to meet the demands of growth, keeping financial balance when townspeople are requiring more services, and preserving the essential character of Carlisle as new development reduces open land and brings an influx of more affluent people to town. Recent interviews with each of the selectmen probed their greatest challenges, their major concerns, and the issues that will be paramount in the coming years. Also, from their vantage point at the head of town government, I asked each to look forward five to ten years and tell me how the town will change, and what needs to be done now to manage those changes.
Professionalizing town government
One of the major issues the selectmen have faced over the past few years is managing the transition of Carlisle's town government from a loose set of departments, operating more or less independently using part-time employees, to a more integrated and efficient organization offering professional career opportunities. A major step was the building of town hall, which for the first time in many years, brought everyone together into one building. Changes in the structure of town government followed, including the gradual addition of paid board administrators and an increase in appointed board positions. Finally, last year, the selectmen oversaw the implementation of job descriptions and salary ranges for all town positions, with a plan to implement personnel policies in the coming year. In addition, the selectmen authorized the installation of a new computer system to streamline accounting, communications, tax collection, and other town functions.
Salary equity promoted
According to selectman Doug Stevenson, who worked extensively with the personnel board on the Wages and Salary Classifications Study, "At one time, positions in town government were filled with local folks on a pseudo-volunteer basis, with token compensation. Now we're hiring people who are looking to these jobs as career positions." As a result, salary equity has become a problem. "People are looking to support families, not just make extra pocket money." According to Stevenson, "These jobs today require education and credentials. There are more laws and regulations. Town employees must know more and do more."
"The growth of the town means we're dealing with greater complexity," says selectman John Ballantine, "Now more is required in every area." He remembers when Carlisle was a town of 2,000 with "five or six people running the town who knew everybody." The reduction inavailable land for development has also added to the burdens on town boards. "In the seventies, people were buying up farms. There was no need to build on sites with wetlands issues or other problems" that would require board approvals. "More professional help is needed" to deal with regulatory, environmental, and other issues that arise as a result.
According to Ballantine, over the past few years the selectmen had come to realize, "It was time to look at running this town more like other towns. The new Town Hall made a big difference, and once everyone was under one roof, we could focus on the operational side of town management." The hiring of a new town administrator last year also provided an opportunity and an impetus for change. "The town administrator was faced with this horizontal organization operating with no personnel policies and no job descriptions." In addition, salaries had gotten out of kilter. "There were some significant shortfalls in compensation. The teachers and police had power (through unions) so they were taken care of, but everyone else felt the squeeze" as year after year budgets were balanced by holding town employees to minimal raises.
Structural changes promote efficiency
"Times change," says Chairman Mike Fitzgerald. "We had to meet the requirements of a town in which people are asking for more services." He points to a number of structural changes made over the past few years to help deal with a growing work load, including more paid board administrators, an increase in appointed (as opposed to elected) board positions, the formation of the municipal land committee to look at long-term land needs, the consolidation of the treasurer and tax collector positions to allow the hiring of one full-time professional, and the increase in the number of selectmen from three to five, a change which Fitzgerald says "helped us distribute a growing workload." In addition, the position of town administrator was strengthened. Says Fitzgerald, "We needed one person responsible for making sure things were done appropriately and when needed. At times it's seemed the left hand didn't know what the right was doing. Now we have a strong town administrator to provide oversight of the Town Hall and liaison to the various boards."
"We have a wonderful staff at the Town Hall," adds selectman Carol Peters. "I'm happy with the basic structure and think we now have a town government that will be able to handle Carlisle's future growth."
Balancing needs and finances
"Coping with growth without putting a burden on the aged and those on fixed incomes is our greatest challenge," says Fitzgerald. "We have one of the highest tax rates in the Commonwealth. People have dug deeper to fund overrides, but this can't go on forever." Other selectmen echoed the need for fiscal restraint while meeting town needs. "The biggest issue we face is to continue to maintain very good town services and the character of the town with limited tax dollars," says Stevenson. "An important resource is older people without kids in the school. We don't want to make the cost of living so high that these valuable people move out of town."
Fairness to residents with differing needs and priorities is part of the challenge, according to selectman Vivian Chaput. "We need to balance the needs of different groups in town, and to protect those on fixed incomes. Long-time residents want a lower tax rate, while schools are of particular importance to newcomers." Stevenson echoes that point, "The challenge is to keep tax rates as low as possible while keeping quality schools. The school budget is more than 50% of town spending, so spending on schools ripples through all departmental budgets."
As evidenced in recent budget reviews, the selectmen are committed to keeping the town's expenditures under the three percent increase recommended by the FinCom. However, recent town meetings have showcased several instances of the town voting to spend for programs not approved by the selectmen or other town boards. Is the selectmen's fiscally conservative approach at odds with a changing, more affluent Carlisle?
Ballantine sees a shift in town attitudes regarding spending, "I've been continually surprised how much the town has loosened up." He surmises that the more affluent newcomers to town "have more money and different priorities than voters at Town Meetings in the late 80s and early 90s when pressure was on to pull back." As a former recreation department head, Peters admits she benefited from the town's more liberal attitude, gaining approval at town meeting for ball fields and a paid recreation commissioner. "Townspeople will support well-thought-out programs and well-defined needs," she says. "But it's always important to exercise restraint and be aware of the burden you put on taxpayers."
Chaput agrees the board "tends to be financially conservative," but thinks that's appropriate. "It's important that we look out for long-term residents, who have made a commitment to the town. Many newer residents are less likely to stay," she adds.
Future demands on finances
The selectman's conservative approach to finances arises from a recognition that the town's future growth may require substantial financial outlays. "We want to make sure we can continue to provide the services townspeople want," says Fitzgerald. "Coming up with ways to deal with growth is our greatest challenge." The possibility of a new school, the wish to preserve open space, the need for affordable housing, and the desire for town amenities such as pathways and a community center, will all provide future financing challenges. "We need to be careful with current spending so we can manage these big projects," says Peters, pointing out that through careful spending the selectmen have been able to build the Stabilization Fund for unforeseen future expenses.
A new school within ten years?
According to the selectmen, a new school in Carlisle must be planned for. "If current growth continues," says Ballantine, an author of Carlisle's "Growing Pains" report, "we will have 900 to 1000 students in the Carlisle school within the next five to ten years. Clearly, some accommodation must be made." Other selectmen agree. "The two major fiscal issues facing the town are the renovations at the high school and the probability we will have to build a new school in Carlisle," says Peters. Stevenson adds, "I think we'll see steady growth and more pressures on the school system. We need to maintain quality schools, and a major issue will be the possibility of a new school, where to locate it and how to pay for it. It's likely that within five to ten years we will have to address that issue."
Preserving the rural feel
The selectmen share a desire to maintain the rural ambiance Carlislians presently enjoy. "Managing growth and preserving the rural character of Carlisle is our greatest challenge," says Peters. "The nature of the town may change as bigger, more expensive houses are built and there is less open space." Chaput also worries about growth, but adds, "I don't think the town will change a great deal. We like it as it is."
Others aren't so sure. "If we continue to grow as we are," says Ballantine, "in five to ten years we can be expected to reach 6,000 people." Noting that two-acre lots are currently going for over $500,000, and most homes being built are "million dollar houses," Ballantine asks, "Will we become more like Weston? And will these affluent residents demand more from the town? They may want more services for their tax dollars, like a community center, restaurant, or swimming pool."
There is also apprehension as to what increased affluence will mean. "As people leave town and more affluent people move in, the town will see changes, some positive, and some negative," says Stevenson. "Affluence means we can afford more, but I fear we may lose some of the character of the town." Adds Fitzgerald, who grew up in Concord, "As (Concord) became more of a bedroom community, there was less community feel. I hate to see that happen to Carlisle that people come in, build, then move in a few years without getting involved."
Ballantine echoed this sense that newer people are less tied-in, noting "There's not a lot of the "new Carlisle" on boards in general." He conjectures that "many are busy, two-income families" and they "bring a different set of assumptions about involvement in the community." He adds, "It's too bad, because this is a large and growing segment of the population, and the future of the town." However, Fitzgerald sees a positive trend. "Over the last couple of years, more of the new people in Carlisle are gradually getting involved in committee work. It's great to see."
Ballantine also notes a lack of senior citizens involved in town government. "As empty nesters lose their connection through the schools, their connection to town becomes more tenuous." He believes the lack of a town gathering place, such as a community center or pub means "there's nothing to pull people together." Discussing the barriers to a community center in Carlisle, Ballantine adds, "This has been talked about in various ways for five years or more, but no concerted effort has been made. Everyone has gone off in their own box, and someone would have to bring the COA, the RecCom, Extended Day, and any other interested parties together." He adds, "Municipal involvement would be necessary, because in a town of less than 5,000, this would not be a big money-maker." Peters adds her voice in support of a community center. "I believe a joint project with the school would be economical and we could share the facility. Seniors need a place, and middle school students have few places to go." She adds, "We need more services; more programs and facilities to bring people together."
"We have to have some form of community center," says Ballantine with conviction. "If we (the selectmen) could facilitate that, it'd be great." He adds, "Maybe this is the time. The town's getting big enough."
The desire to preserve open space in the face of extensive development presents significant financial challenges. "Thank God for Ben Benfield," sighs Chaput, adding, "Buying land for conservation is very expensive." Benfield recently granted seventy-one acres to the Carlisle Conservation Foundation. "We can't afford to buy land and do other things that are important, like maintaining a top-notch school system," Chaput adds, pointing out that "The Community Preservation Act invites discussion," as a possible avenue for protecting conservation land and advancing affordable housing and historic preservation. This act was passed last year and provides a mechanism for towns to set aside money for these purposes.
The need for additional town land is also a concern, according to Peters. "The municipal land committee's work of long term planning fortown land is important," she says. "Banta Davis was purchased in the seventies as a resource for the town's future needs. We must make sure to do the same for the next generation." Banta Davis is currently used for town ball fields, and is the likely future site of a new school.
One of the goals the selectmen have set for themselves is to come up with a workable plan to bring affordable housing to Carlisle. Says Stevenson, "When I was growing up in Carlisle, the town was more rural; there were still farms and more blue collar workers. Now it's becoming more of a bedroom community, with more affluence and less diversity. I think we should resist exclusivity, and that's why affordable housing should be a priority." Adds Chaput, "We need affordable housing if we want teachers aides, the people who plow the roads, and our kids to be able to afford to live here."
As a participant in the MAGIC regional planning board, Chaput is well aware of the need to prepare for increasing traffic through Carlisle Center. "The Route 3 reconstruction starting this spring will bring more traffic into town," she says. "As traffic builds over the long-term, the safety of bikers and pedestrians will be threatened. This will raise the importance of pathways." Peters also supports finding "a fiscally responsible way to institute pathways. She believes, "A pathway system would be a valuable resource. It would benefit town safety and improve the sense of community."
The power to influence the future
How much power do the selectmen have to influence the future of the town? Perhaps not as much as you think. "We have some power, but we can't change the direction of the town in a major way," says Stevenson. "People think we have more power than we do, but Town Meeting controls the town pocketbook." He chuckles and adds, "But as a believer in limited-government myself, I'm not sure that's a bad thing."
When asked to characterize the board of selectmen, Ballantine admits, "This is not a particularly proactive board. We're more likely to react to ideas others bring to us that we think are good," adding, "Our real power as selectmen is to promote debate." He contrasts Carlisle's town government with that of other towns, such as Lincoln, which he sees as more "visionary." "The character of this town is very transactional and project-oriented," he explains. "Buying into a full vision is not what Carlisle seems to be about." Instead, separate, "almost private" groups such as the RecCom and the Land Trust, which control their own revenue sources, "pursue their own more narrow visions. It would be nice to have more collective decision-making," says Ballantine, pointing to Municipal Planning Day as an attempt to get several organizations to buy into a plan and move forward. On the other hand, "The single group focused on a step-by-step approach to a problem has been successful" in bringing projects such as the Tot Lot and elderly housing to fruition.
Fitzgerald summarizes, "I'm often reminded of the limits of our power. Most of the power we wield is the power of persuasion." He also points to the ability to "bring the boards together in an "all boards meeting" to set the agenda and establish objectives for the coming year" as "our most powerful tool. The volunteers making up the boards make this town run," he adds."Without volunteers, we all might as well pack it up."
Continuation page headline:
Selectmen speak about the challenge of managing town government, growth and change, while preserving the rural nature of Carlisle
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito