Friday, August 30, 2002
Belanger brings finance, town government experience to FinCom
Deb Belanger, who was appointed to the Carlisle Finance Committee this summer, brings twenty years of experience in finance, an intimate knowledge of town government, and a strong interest in promoting depart-mental cooperation to help solve Carlisle's budget woes. An eleven-year resident of Carlisle, Belanger resides on Palmer Way with her husband Joseph, their son Nick, 8, and daughter Kate, 4.
"My experience has included working with enterprises of the same volume and with many of the same issues as Carlisle town government," says Belanger. She hopes some of the approaches she developed for helping small to medium-sized companies can be applied in her new position on the FinCom.
After graduating from Boston College, Belanger worked for eight years in commercial lending for State Street Bank. After receiving an MBA from Babson, she formed her own company, "working as CFO/COO for five or more companies of $10 to $40 million." She notes that her problem-solving approach focused on "operational and systems issues and getting people all rolling in the same direction." She enjoyed seeing her recommendations through to implementation, "so I would know if what I was recommending worked." After ten years of consulting, she moved on to an investment company developing holdings in media.
Recently Belanger retired from business to stay home with her two young children. "It was a big transition," she says, "but I love it." She did volunteer work in town and found it "inspiring to work with the great people we have." She adds, "I call myself the 'accidental activist' because activism is not in my nature." But she found herself drawn into a bigger role by her commitment to the town and her desire to make a difference.
Belanger has made a substantial impact on the pedestrian and bike safety committee which she has chaired through development of the "school loop" plan for pathways in the town center. Two years ago she joined the long-term capital investment committee in order to put her financial knowledge to work.
With all her other responsibilities, why did she choose to apply for the FinCom opening? Pointing to her positive experiences working with the people in town government, "I saw this as an opportunity to do something I enjoy with people I really like. I also think I have something I can offer." That something, she says, is her experience in financial problem-solving. "We need to look beyond the numbers and find new ways to approach problems," she says. "The FinCom must explore solutions [to budgetary shortfalls], not just focus on what the override is going to be."
Greater town efficiency
"We need to get down to the grassroots and talk to each department. What must they have to do their job? How can we work together to cut costs, collaborate, and work more efficiently?" She adds, "We need to rethink how we deliver the product."
Belanger believes town government would benefit from looking at the way private enterprises are managed. "We need to share more services between departments such as the school, police, library, Town Hall. A private-sector business would have lots of points of intersection" between departments, whereas in Carlisle government departments are separate and autonomous.
Stronger town management
She points to the need for a strong manager to "provide continuity, someone who can oversee departments, find efficiencies, and work with other towns." The position of town administrator as it stands, she says, "hasn't been defined in that way." She adds, "We need regular reporting on budgets, and unitized costs." She offers as an example, "a road maintenance plan based on road miles to optimize usage," and avoid a backlog of deferred maintenance.
"We should examine the mix of people and equipment," she adds. For example, she'd like to look at lawn mowing and other services to determine if money could be saved in the long run by investing in additional equipment or combining contracts under one provider. Says Belanger, "David Flannery, David Galvin, and Gary Davis those three are a great team and a great model, the way they problem-solve together and share resources. We all need to learn how to do what they do."
Sharing resources, ideas
On the pedestrian and bike safety committee, Belanger learned an important lesson in this regard. The committee was originally bent on a "go-it-alone" strategy similar to what other towns had done. "We would have spent a fortune on consultants and surveyors before we even put a shovel in the ground," she says.
Looking for ways to cut costs, one committee member wondered if the town's DPW could help. Yes, was the answer during the week of Christmas vacation while the school was closed. For only $1600 in materials, the committee was able to realize the Tot Lot pathway using DPW labor. "Using a contractor would have cost ten times that," says Belanger. She now continues to network with the DPW, library, and other committees to find opportunities to get pathway work done with little expense.
Better budget planning
"When we came through the last budget cycle," Belanger notes, "lots of lessons were learned through the process." She says the town was in "reactive mode, not proactive. This year we must get ahead of the train." Belanger says she'll be asking questions, trying to get a better sense of the process and the impact on individual departments.
For example, she asks, "What does 'level service' mean (to each department)? There's no common understanding, and we need to know that." She applauds the decision to have departments present budgets consistent with the FinCom-recommended level. "As a discipline we need to understand what 'no override' means in terms of services. When the spring override failed, the school scrambled and people in town government were caught by surprise. That's a bad place to be."
Belanger hopes to avoid being pigeonholed as liberal, conservative, anti-spending, pro-school, or whatever other labels tend to adhere to members of the town's committees. For example, she says, "I'm concerned with the needs of townspeople on fixed incomes as well as those with kids in the school. We owe a debt there they're why Carlisle is the way it is." She adds, "I would love to solve the property tax problem, whether with a cap, swap, or some kind of reclassification scheme."
She says of the Carlisle Committee for Tax Fairness, the vocal community organization that opposed the spring override, "I hope they stay in the process. Everyone should feel they have the voice." Noting the group has become a major advocate for fiscal responsibility she adds, "I'm happy they're there. They make us all work harder, and we should."
Summarizing her philosophy, Belanger says, "My question is what's fair? What's the right thing to do? To me, that's outside politics."
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito