FROM THE TOWN ADMINISTRATORS DESK
August 22, 2019
The number of staff in Town Hall has been virtually unchanged for decades. The total number of full-time equivalents (FTE’s) working for the town has actually decreased over the last ten years, even with the addition of a town planner and a new “floater” for the Fire Department, dropping from a high of 78 FTE’s down to 71. The Selectmen’s/Town Administrator’s Office shrunk by a half time position when building permit activity was moved over to the Assessor’s Office.
However, during this same ten year period the demands and public expectations have grown. This is particularly evident in the area of communications and community engagement. In the age of emails and social media platforms, information exchange can occur at lightning speed. And people have come to expect instant replies. This poses real challenges to staff. I could spend my entire day just responding to the hundred or so emails I receive daily. Doing so is not realistic but, as we have seen, there is a real need to better communicate with residents about what your municipal staff are accomplishing on your behalf and to better garner public opinion on the priorities and desired outcomes.
To help with this, voters approved additional funds for a Communications and Community Outreach Coordinator as part of this year’s budget. This new part-time position, to be hired soon, will boost our capacity to inform the public on municipal activities and ensure public feedback is an essential piece of most everything we do. New efforts are to include re-establishing the regular distribution of the Selectmen’s newsletter (sent out in the tax bills and the water/sewer bills), re-vamping and keeping more current the town’s web site and social media presence, holding municipal “academies” where residents get an in-depth look into town operations, organizing neighborhood discussion groups, especially when a project is contemplated for a particular area in town, and organizing annual training sessions for our board and committee members. Our ideal candidate for this new role is a local resident who not only is a skilled communicator but also has his or her finger on the pulse of the community to help us better anticipate issues and concerns.
The Town also needs to bolster our expertise and capacity in the human resource arena. While an over-used cliché, our staff are our most important asset that needs care and attention. But here, too, the world has grown more complex with state and federal rules and procedures that must be followed and a shrinking labor pool that requires more recruiting efforts as a wave of baby-boomer retirements reaches deep into our ranks.
The Town has relied on a patchwork of efforts by department leaders, the Town Treasurer and the Town Administrator to cobble together our HR management. Recently we have relied on the assistance of an HR consultant with very positive results. As noted in the new shared services study with Essex, it may be time to hire our own HR specialist, perhaps as a shared new resource with another town or two. Discussions on how best to do this are on-going, including the option of combining this function with the role of an Assistant Town Administrator as many communities do.
To be sure, we are mindful of the budget impacts of adding any additional staff and, when confronted with competing needs, we tend to favor front-line staff over administrative roles. However, we are facing some critical bottlenecks in our administrative functions that can hamper the productivity of front-line staff. Thus, it may be time to favor some administrative capacity building at this time.