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State to Hadley: More long-range planning needed to improve town finances

GORDON DANIELS
David Nixon, Hadley town administrator

GORDON DANIELS David Nixon, Hadley town administrator Purchase photo reprints »

The 24-page financial management review was requested by the Select Board and outlines 33 recommendations for town officials to consider as they evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of government operations.

The agency’s biggest piece of advice is to develop a 5-year strategic plan and link that plan to the town’s annual budget while ensuring that performance goals have been set and achieved across departments.

“We recommend that the select board initiate a strategic planning process to identify a list of clearly defined priorities for the next five years,” the report states. “Establishing this comprehensive list of goals will help give the town direction and guide local officials in matters that are of primary importance to the community.”

DOR officials, who conduct such reviews when asked by cities and towns, are scheduled to present the report in a public meeting Sept. 25 to the town’s relatively new Tri-Board, composed of Select Board and school and finance committee members. The report is available on the DOR’s website. The agency conducted similar reviews of the town’s highway, water and sewer departments in 2007.

Town Administrator David G. Nixon said the review, which drew on interviews and information from 19 current and former town officials, is helpful to gauge where Hadley stands in terms of best financial management practices.

“There are ideas in the report that I think should be debated and explored thoroughly and can be of value to the town if done thoroughly,” Nixon said. “The next step for us, I think, is to put in place policies that will guide the town over a long period of time and manage the town’s finances in a responsible way.”

Others say the DOR’s study needs to be taken seriously and acted upon soon. Many of the weak points the DOR identifies have been discussed at times by town officials, though with few results, they say.

“This is not new,” said David Moskin, a former Select Board member who was interviewed by the DOR for the study. “There’s a saying in management: beware of activity without accomplishment.”

Moskin has been a strong critic of some Select Board members and the town administrator in the past and as an incumbent candidate, withdrew his name from the election ballot in May. “There’s no strategic discussion ever,” Moskin said. “Right now, we don’t have a working Select Board. The Select Board needs to do much more.”

Select Board member Joyce A. Chunglo disagreed with that assessment and said a lack of funding and competing prerogatives, particularly between the Select Board and the Finance Committee, have presented barriers to moving forward. “We haven’t always had the cooperation of the Finance Committee over the years,” Chunglo said. “I think we’re trying to work more compatibly, particularly with the Tri-board. It is a difficult process sometimes to get to the ending of things.”

Chunglo said she has not read the report, but expects the Select Board to take a good look at it. “You have to go in with an open mind,” she said. “Certainly, if they’re going to offer us something we can do better at, then why not look at it?”

Mounting pressures

The review notes that in recent decades, Hadley’s growth and rising property wealth have increased the scope of services the town provides along with the size of its budget. But today, “Hadley’s revenues are struggling to keep pace with the cost of operating government even as the worst economic downturn in the decades begins to abate.”

Like many other cities and towns, Hadley’s state aid has declined and the additional taxes it generates from new construction and renovation work also has steadily declined which could be an early indicator that the town’s rate of growth has hit a plateau, according to the report.

Rising costs have put added pressure on the budget, from additional spending on education and post-employment benefits to a significant backlog of infrastructure repairs which the town has put off for years.

In addition, the outside review found that several organization-related matters appear to have stalled, including regionalizing dispatch services which could save money. Apart from hiring a new full-time fire chief, the town has yet to embrace a series of recommendations made in outside studies of the fire and police departments.

An $8,000 management study of the Hadley Police Department by BadgeQuest in 2009 recommended a variety of staffing, policies and directives, including establishing clear chains of command and communications between police and town officials, yet the report remains to be implemented, the DOR’s review found.

“You don’t stick it on a shelf, you bring it for discussion,” Moskin said of the consultant reports the town has commissioned but not acted upon. “It doesn’t take leadership to hire a consultant. It takes leadership to implement the valuable findings and recommendations the consultant suggests.”

The study found that Nixon appears to be offering workable solutions to Hadley’s financial challenges, though despite any momentum, those efforts appear to be at a standstill because of mounting tension among local officials, boards and committees, as well as a growing discussion focused on the role of the town administrator and relationships between the Select Board and Finance Committee.

“From our vantage point, this is delaying or obstructing critical decisions about how to move the town forward,” the report states.

Nixon acknowledged in an interview at his Town Hall office that these tensions exist. He cited the failed petition drive signed by 180 Hadley residents seeking his ouster a year ago. The petition was primarily organized by Wilfred Danylieko, the town’s wiring inspector. “It’s a huge distraction,” Nixon said. “I think that the report clearly identifies that this is unproductive activity by the town and there’s work to be done.”

Other ideas

In addition to its three priority recommendations, the DOR’s Division of Local Services offered 30 other recommendations to strengthen the town’s overall financial management, which it found operates on a professional level.

They call for improved communication between the town administrator and Select Board chairperson, merging the town treasurer and collector positions, addressing financial management software issues, and implementing several new financial record-keeping practices, including payroll changes and discontinuing use of a hand-written manual cash book, among many others.

The report encourages the town to regionalize its emergency dispatch service with a neighboring town like Amherst, stating that “local officials are not in a position to pass up projected savings generated through this unique opportunity.”

For security, access to Town Hall should be limited to the town administrator, police and fire chiefs during non-business hours as an unknown number of individuals have keys to the buildings, according to the report. Nixon said he is aware of about two dozen people with keys to Town Hall and said he would be in favor of a new key pad entry system for the building.

The DOR also said the town should consider eliminating board and committee stipends, which members of seven town panels receive. The move, which other cities and towns have made, would save about $27,500 annually. “It should be eliminated,” said John Allen, a former member of the Select Board and Finance Committee who was interviewed by the DOR for its review.

Allen said it makes no sense for members of boards like the Park Commission and Planning Board to receive a stipend and health benefits, while the School Committee, which handles 41 percent of the town’s budget, gets nothing.

In his view, Allen said town officials need to get “right to work” on the DOR’s recommendations and looks forward to seeing them vetted in the weeks ahead.

“I’m hoping that they’ll give it a full public airing and ask a lot of questions to the DOR (and) if they’re in doubt of anything, challenge them,” Allen said. “I see a competent third party member coming in and looking at things and laying out the obvious. None of this surprises me.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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