The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 4, 2009

No easy answers for reducing town budgets

Can the budgets for town departments be shaved without dramatic reductions in needed services? The Structural Financial Planning (SFP) Committee last Wednesday combed the suggestions of departmental heads who had been asked to propose how they could reduce their operating budgets by 10%. Most cited service reductions that would be tenable only in the short term, while some promoted fee increases that would net, in most cases, a few thousand dollars. With these suggestions in hand, it will now be up to the SFP to take the longer-term view and look for sustainable savings, perhaps through combining jobs, reducing low-priority services, or doing business in new ways.

The SFP committee’s goal is to structurally reduce the town budget by $250,000, an amount that would be on-going and not restored in future years. This would represent a 5% reduction in the approximately $5 million of the town’s $21.5 million total budget reserved for departments that include the DPW, police, fire, library and other services. The Carlisle School Committee, in a parallel effort, is working to reduce that $9 million budget by a similar amount. The other two chunks of the budget, CCHS/MMRHS at $5.5 million and retirement/benefits at $2 million, are deemed less amenable to reduction.

No embrace of job sharing

at Town Hall

The committee had hoped there might be opportunities to combine jobs at Town Hall to realize efficiencies where departments might require coverage but not full work days. Selectman John Williams and Carlisle Finance Director Larry Barton reported on a meeting with land use departments, including Board of Health agent Linda Fantasia, George Mansfield of the Planning Board, Conservation Administrator Sylvia Willard and Building Commissioner John Luther, who together employ three staff people. Barton said the idea of job sharing is unpopular. A staff person is currently shared between the Planning Board and Board of Health, and there is general agreement that the arrangement causes inefficiencies and confusion. In addition, said Barton, “Knowledge doesn’t transition easily” between departments operating under different regulations.

Planning Board representative David Freedman observed that staff people are now consistently busy, so the opportunity to fill slack time on one job with tasks from another may be minimal. But Finance Committee (FinCom) representative David Model questioned the “siloing” of departments and observed that the current situation cited is not true job-sharing because the day is split between two departments. Board of Selectmen and SFP Chair Tim Hult wondered if a “push-back on working together, and making them work with less” would breed better solutions.

Currently the land use departments have budgets that total about $250,000. Fantasia had suggested a single location for on-line applications for all permits could increase efficiency. In addition, Luther noted that the fee for a building permit, now $11 per $10,000 could go up $1 and still be in line with other communities. This would raise $20,000 per year. Conservation fees should also be examined, as they have not been raised since 2003. Williams concluded that it would be worthwhile to look at fees, especially those for building permits where “a couple dollars matters.”

Finance-free Fridays proposed

Freedman and Model had interviewed department heads in the finance and administration area, with budgets totaling about $1 million. One suggestion was to close Town Hall every other Friday, or perhaps every Friday, with every other designated as a staff catch-up day during which employees would be paid to be present, but the building would be closed to the public. Hult wondered if this could be a long-term solution, “It’s essentially a pay cut; the work still needs to get done.”

Barton agreed, noting some employees already work beyond their paid hours.

The Town Hall custodian is retiring, and this may offer an opportunity to rethink the deployment of custodians. Other areas suggested for examination included the Town Counsel retainer of $36,000 per year, overtime pay for staff covering late meetings, and the possibility of fees for notarization and copying. Other areas will be investigated to determine if staff can be reduced.

Little slack in DPW work,

but flagging might save $10,000

Williams and Barton had also reviewed suggestions from the Superintendent of Public Works Gary Davis. His FY10 budget is just over $1 million, with eleven full-time DPW workers. Cutting two employees would save $80,000, or reducing everyone’s hours from 40 to 36 could save a similar amount. However, Barton noted the work undone can be deferred but not eliminated, as long as roads and buildings are to be maintained. In a later phone conversation, Barton said that outsourcing some DPW functions has not yet been considered, but could be part of a future SFP discussion.

Davis noted an easy way to reduce costs permanently would be to change the requirement for police details and allow DPW flaggers on town projects, saving about $10,000 per year. This would require the Selectmen to vote on a change of policy. Other suggestions included increasing burial fees which are now $200 on weekdays and $350 on weekends, and collecting fees for plowing two private roads and three church parking lots that are now done free. Raising the Transfer Station sticker price doesn’t help because those funds are reserved for recycling costs, although perhaps the bylaw could be changed.

Examining police schedules

Hult and Tim Goddard had been asked to review public safety departments. The police department currently has a $1.2 million budget, and employs nine full-time and two part-time officers. Cutting one policeman would save $65,000. Chief John Sullivan has been asked to review schedules and see if coverage could be maintained with a reduction of one officer. “It’s really tight, but might be doable,” reported Hult. Williams noted, “There may be times when a lieutenant or captain has to jump in cruiser. That’s the kind of stretch we are looking for.” One issue might be the union response to using managerial or special officers where a full-time policeman was employed. A suggestion to eliminate $13,000 in dues paid to NEMLC for police support services such as SWAT teams was roundly rejected. “We’re not going to touch that,” said Hult, pointing to the value of the NEMLC response in a recent school threat.

It appears the fire department and communications budgets are unlikely to yield areas for reduction. The fire department’s $270,000 is a fraction of what would be required to staff a department of full-time firefighters. Hult reported that Chief David Flannery believes morale and training are essential for an all-call department with a low incidence rate. “He really understands the problems of the town and wants to participate,” said Hult, “but doesn’t want to lose what he’s got.” The communications department budget of $275,000 includes five dispatchers, and experience has shown this is the optimal number. Williams said a lot of work has gone into improving this department, and Model agreed. He noted that any dispatcher-scheduling holes are filled by policemen on overtime, “and that’s way more expensive.”

Other town services reviewed

The COA, Library and Recreation Commission (RecCom) had also been reviewed. The COA budget at $120,000 “services a lot of need,” reported Hult. He said the director, Kathy Mull, recently resigned after years of working many more hours per week than she is paid. Model expressed the FinCom’s position that this department should be well-funded because seniors are “a growing demographic with a low draw on town resources” and there is a public safety aspect.

The Gleason Library has a $500,000 budget which offers few attractive areas for reduction. “It is the Town Center,” said Model, noting that even reducing custodial staff might not be feasible in this heavily used space. Hult agreed, “It’s important to say we looked at every organization” but the Library Trustees are “sharp and careful” and are “expanding the program in a way that’s attractive to the community.”

The RecCom reported it could lower its $117,000 budget by 10% through reduced field maintenance and use of non-organic products. Fees could be raised for youth sports and other programs, but it was felt that fees are already high enough to discourage some customers. Hult said a reduction in maintenance is not feasible long-term as the expense of losing a playing field is “horrendous.”

It was noted that The Town of Concord will be approached to gauge interest in merging some departments or sharing some tasks. Freedman offered that a look at municipal technical support is also in order and could uncover “a ton of inefficiency. “

The SFP committee members will hold further meetings with town departments. In a later phone conversation, Barton observed, “It’s understandably difficult for a department manager to shift from a short-term view to a long-term view.” He added, “We (the SFP) need to understand the parts. Next we will look at town government holistically and make our recommendations on services.” ∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito