Consultants find ‘improvement opportunities’ in Town Hall departments

by Bob Zielinski

After a six-month study of Carlisle government, consultants from the Collins Center for Public Management found many “positives,” but also areas for improving efficiency. Key recommendations included development of a five-year strategic technology plan, consolidation of the Council on Aging and the Recreation Commission into a new Community Services Department, and centralizing land-use departments in the Highland Building. The Selectmen noted that the costs of these changes were not addressed.

The process

The Selectmen retained the Collins Center for Public Management to conduct an analysis of Carlisle government operations for departments located in Town Hall. The analysis began in June and the draft report was presented at the December 4 Selectmen’s meeting.

Consultants Rob Haley and Jay Gardner described the methodology and summarized their recommendations. The process involved:

• Kick off in June with Town Administrator;

• Interviews with Town Hall department directors;

• Collection of preliminary data;

• Development of descriptive profiles for each department;

• Meeting with “Steering Committee” in July;

• Identification of preliminary issues for discussion;

• Preparation of the draft report.

“There are a lot of positives”

While the focus was on improvement opportunities, Haley said, “Jay and I didn’t have to search for positives. There are a lot of positives. Carlisle is almost exemplary in sharing clerical and administrative staff. In many of our interviews we found that although there are stated hours of operation many departments are here well after posted business hours. There is also good communications between departments.There are, however, some improvement opportunities.”

Technology recommendations

Haley said, “We recommend that you adopt a five year strategic technology plan. Right now technology decisions are largely made in reaction to problems that are encountered by each department. Each department is making its own decisions. There is no consistent means of establishing priorities as regards hardware, software, replacement funding. And there is no overall guidance on training on applications. The plan should be forward-looking.”

“You have a GIS system [Geographic Information System]. However it is under-utilized. One of the things that jump out at us is that there is no ‘owner’ of the system. There is nobody coordinating what should go into the system. You have a technologically savvy residential population that could benefit from a more robust GIS.”

“We suggest you purchase and install an automated information system for the Council on Aging that will collect and report participation, track and monitor programs. We were very impressed with the COA – it is forward-thinking. This is going to become a more important segment of your population. My Senior Center is one such software program.”

“Similarly we recommend that the Recreation Department purchase and install an automated information system for marketing purposes, registration and developing participant profiles.”

“Another opportunity is in the utility of individual department webpages. There are large variations in the utility of each. The COA is one of your better ones. Some even have links going to non-existent webpages. We suggest that at least all of the town hours be posted on line. And post FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions). You have a relatively small staff. You can provide a lot of information on a department webpage that can keep residents from having to make a trip to Town Hall if the right questions are being accumulated and answered. We also suggest cross-training employees to a greater degree. If one department has a member absent somebody could be there to answer a question. A survey could be done on when up and down hours are as far as visits to Town Hall. You might be able to extend to evening hours and closing down during low periods.”

“We suggest the COA and RecCom modify their cash-handling procedures. For instance COA bus drivers collect cash for the rides–not one of the best practices. The RecCom has a cardboard box where people can deposit their registration fees. You should look at in-source of payroll. Your software has a payroll module that you did not purchase. It costs about $15K. You are paying $8K annually to outsource. Even with additional staff payroll duties, payback would be about five years.”

Organizational Opportunities

The report states: “The Board of Selectmen should assess the potential of strengthening the position of town administrator in order to consolidate daily supervision over operations and performance of staff.” Haley said that the town bylaws do not describe the duties and responsibilities of the town administrator. “The position has a lot of responsibility under the supervision of the Board of Selectmen. There is not a lot of authority to get that done. We suggest you address that position’s authority, perhaps with a bylaw change.”

“The town should consider the consolidation of the Council on Aging and the Recreation Department, into a newly-formed Community Services Department. They have similar missions. We also suggest you consider creation of a CIO (Chief Information Officer). You are a small organization and you don’t usually find a CIO in organizations this small but there are a lot of issues that we have gone through in the report that could benefit from a centralized CIO.”

“Also consider converting the Town Clerk from an elected to an appointed position. In all candor of all of the towns in Massachusetts 254 of them do have elected positions. You are in the majority; 79 are appointed. We actually did an unscientific survey, calling around to eight towns. Four less populated than Carlisle, four more populated and six out of those eight do have elected positions. Almost none of them had very competitive elections.”

Haley concluded his presentation with: “At the end of the report we make a note of the need to be forward looking. Making sure that you do proper succession planning. Five of the ten managers in town hall are 60 years and older. The average age is 57. Make sure that ‘institutional memory’ is passed along to the next generation.”

Locating land use organizations in Highland Building

Gardner said, “The town should consider relocating the departments of Building, Planning, Housing, Health and Conservation to the Highland Building on School Street creating a one stop shop for permitting and plan review.” He said, “We realize that there is a Highland committee is already looking at some opportunities. We would hope that this report would be something they would entertain. What this doesn’t do is create a cost center to recoup some cost. What it would do is create an opportunity to look at how to best utilize that space and in Town Hall. Grouping them together wouldn’t take up all of Highland. There may be some mixed use opportunities there for some revenue to come in.”

Next steps

Chair Peter Scavongelli thanked Haley and Gardner for their presentation and said, “We will take the report under advisement and establish a subcommittee to review it and make recommendations to the Selectmen.“ Selectman Tim Hult offered to participate: “I’m town services liaison I’m glad to do it. The danger is after a while people ask ‘Where is that study?’ We have employees thinking about it. We [the Selectmen] should make a specific statement on the study recommendations. The Steering Committee was not really a steering committee. The new subcommittee should have a commitment as to what their role should be.”

Selectman Doug Stevenson said, “I would want from this group a vetting of what it [each recommendation] will cost.” Regarding website development he said, “We have to decide how much we should invest to serve a segment of the population.”

Finance Director Larry Barton said, “As a result of this study and discussions that we have had some of their recommendations have been addressed in part. GIS is starting to take hold. In technology the Town Administrator has a coordinated response to technology problems through a contractor. We did not have that back in June when the study was started.” ∆