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Question of the Week: Selectmen Candidates Discuss Town Consolidation

Dan and Andy speak on consolidations within town departments.

While regionalization has been a topic in the campaign, there are also calls for consolidation of town services. Recently, there has been talk of the Council on Aging, Recreation and Building and Grounds (which itself is undergoing a consolidation) to be joined with savings coming from cost reductions and salaries. What town departments could you see consolidated or joined?

Dan Scharfman

Consolidation of departments helps Belmont only when money is saved or service quality improves. It is not clear how consolidation of the Council on Aging with the Recreation Department would do either. In recent years the Selectmen have analyzed consolidation of legal services, human resources, and information technology, only to find that costs would rise and services would deteriorate in a forced consolidation.

The primary way to save money in consolidation is reduction of management personnel, but in each of these and many other cases, almost all employees are engaged in direct constituent services;there are few if any managers whose hours could be reduced without significant loss of effectiveness. Indeed in most consolidations additional management time is required to coordinate the efforts of multiple small departments, resulting in increased costs.

Beyond wholesale consolidation of departments, I believe Belmont can make progress by finding synergies. The town and school IT departments share a fiber-optic network with the Light Department, and each provides emergency backup for the servers of the other.They share a town-wide phone system. We may be able to find additional resources to share, such as a common web platform for transactions from parking tickets to water bills to athletic fees and school lunches.

We can also consolidate some of our projects, as we did with the town-wide IT security audit. I recently learned that the Town Clerk’s office needs to digitize some of our archival records. Having helped a number of historical societies and museums undertake this work, I know that we can save money and improve quality by purchasing one set of top-quality equipment rather than several cheaper units, allowing other departments to follow the Town Clerk at very low cost. We can find many such synergies in the future.

Many residents have suggested that we consolidate our use of buildings rather than builda new structure for each separate service or department. This is difficult in Belmont because multiple-use structures will have larger parking requirements and a large impact on abutters and neighbors. Nevertheless, given the staggering cost of new buildings and our very limited buildable land, we must continually challenge our town departments to share space.

Regionalization of services, including positions that would shared between communities,appears to be a more fruitful source of potential savings than consolidations of townservices or departments for the sake of consolidation.

To make these complex consolidations work, we need a gifted, capable, creative Town Administrator. The right administrator will see possibilities that we have overlooked, and the right Board of Selectmen will encourage creative thinking and new ways of doing business.

Belmont’s town government is filled with active, energetic, collaborative managers who have already consolidated everything from dispatch services to snow removal. With leadership from the Selectmen and Town Administrator, they will find even more.

I look forward to being part of that creative, active leadership.

Andy Rojas

Several weeks ago I wrote about ideas for the regionalization of services with adjoining towns, a discussion which has been ongoing in Belmont for many years now with public forums and studies. Now I want to focus on ideas for consolidation of departments and services within the Town.

Broadly speaking, there are two overlapping criteria for identifying opportunities for consolidation. The first is similarity of operations. If two departments perform essentially the same functions, perhaps for different populations, the benefits of consolidation with respect to service quality, resource utilization efficiency, and costs, clearly ought to be explored.

The second criterion is size. There are many departments, or sub-functions within departments, that are operated by fewer than 2-3 staff; having separate departments, or units, each with its own management or supervisory personnel, which is not the most efficient operational model. Combining such departments or functions under a single manager allows for greater resource utilization as well as sub-function specialization. So long as the missions of the departments or units involved, and the knowledge or skill base required of management, are compatible, such small departments are promising candidates for consolidation.

The recent consolidation of the Buildings & Grounds operations for the Town and schools is a model that can be applied elsewhere. This is a logical program that will engender greater flexibility and efficiency in the upkeep of the Town and school buildings and facilities. We should expect an increase in the level and quality of services as the consolidated operations become more efficient and adopt the best aspects of eachother’s operations.

While this will not necessarily save the Town money, the other tangible benefits to all of our residents clearly add value. We should study this consolidation effort in order to apply its lessons to other Town operations and departments.

The key to any of these consolidation approaches is to clearly understand up front what the Town is getting into. We must analyze the costs and benefits of every viable option. Any proposed solution for the consolidation of services must be able to demonstrate a compelling public benefit before it is implemented. We must also weigh the ideas and recommendations from our prior consolidation studies –so that we can build on this important knowledge base.

The cost-benefit analyses are important and necessary first steps. If consolidation solutions pass this test,careful planning for transition and full implementation is required for their efficient integration into themosaic of Town services. Communicating all of this to our residents is a critical aspect of anyapproach. Resident expectations must match projected program results.

As Selectman I will explore the consolidation of the Town’s Health, Human Services (COA), and Recreation Departments. This has been recommended in the past by the Warrant Committee. More generally, I would look at departments that have small staff, compatible missions and functions, and the same types of equipment, resources and personnel. Such operations could benefit from efficient consolidation, with managers who could take the lead on defined programmatic areas.

I commit to explore every available option, among and beyond these approaches, to increase the level of services to our residents, to increase efficiency in our operations, and to contain and reduce costs.

Please contact me at (617) 281-4617, andy@rojasdesigninc.com or on my website, andyrojas.com. I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

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