Local government leaders in Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge are taking the first step toward exploring a potential shared-services agreement for a tri-town manager.
The three communities have a legal inter-municipal agreement in place to assess potential collaborations among any two of the towns, or all three. Lee and Lenox started sharing a Buildings Department on Jan. 1.
This week, the Select Boards in all three municipalities approved a plan to seek no-cost state assistance to review the impact of a possible, unprecedented accord to share a municipal leader such as Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen.
The timing is promising, advocates say, because Stockbridge Town Administrator Jorja-Ann P. Marsden has announced her retirement as of July 15. Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason intends to step down when his current contract expires in June 2017.
Stockbridge Selectman Stephen Shatz explained that the state Department of Revenue's Division of Local Services provides technical assistance to cities and towns on various issues, including collaborations.
"Shared services agreements are few and far between among the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts," Shatz pointed out at Wednesday's board meeting. Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge are pioneers, having created Tri-Town Health in 1927.
Now, he said, "everything's on the table."
Shatz commented that consideration of joint leadership among several town governments is uncharted territory.
The Stockbridge Select Board voted to endorse a letter signed by Lee Select Board Chairwoman Patricia Carlino requesting technical assistance from the state agency. Carlino also chairs the tri-town administrative review committee considering potential collaborations.
The Select Boards in all three towns made it clear the process is exploratory, with Carlino concerned about time management for a tri-town municipal leader.
"I know how much time Bob [Nason] puts in our town and the question is: 'Will this save money or at least improve operations,' " she said.
In her letter, Carlino notes the Marsden and Nason retirements provide enough lead time to plan and transition to a unified town manager/administrator position. She also asked that the state Department of Revenue coordinate the next steps through Ketchen.
"I don't want to say we're deferring to him," Shatz said, "but he does have substantial knowledge of the workings of the state in this regard. He's a very bright, capable guy and we have the benefit of his services."
"The letter is specific to a town administrator," Shatz responded after local resident Mary Hart sought clarification.
Lee Selectman Thomas Wickham agreed to support vetting a shared town administrator or manager, despite the perceived time constraints of the job.
"That's an awful lot of work for one manager, running three towns," he said. "Maybe we should invest in a [shared] human resources person."
At the Lenox Select Board meeting on Wednesday night, Ketchen credited the assistance of state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli as the three towns explore potential collaborations.
Pignatelli, an outspoken advocate of shared services, hosted a Dec. 22 visit to Great Barrington by Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt.-Gov. Karyn Polito to witness the signing of a Community Compact among 17 South County towns and six school districts that could foster collaborations of services, personnel and equipment.
Lenox Select Board Chairman Edward Lane stated that the impending retirement of Marsden and Nason "opens up an opportunity to consider sharing the chief financial/administrative function for the three towns. A scenario such as this is rare and will require considerable thought."
Lane predicted "a complicated process requiring more in-depth analysis than we can possibly do on our own." Therefore, he added, leaders of the three towns have agreed on the need for state assistance to weigh in on possibly combining the functions of town administrators in Stockbridge and Lee along with town manager in Lenox.
"This is a big step; a big deal," Lane said. Part of the shared-services agreement among the three towns calls for exploration of possible collaborations when there's a retirement and a position opens up, he pointed out.
"Nobody has made up their minds that this is a good idea, bad idea or whatever," he said. "We need a ton more information to assess the whole thing."
Lane described feedback from the state agency as "the best advice we could get, and we'd be remiss if we didn't at least get them to come and do their analysis, lay it out to us and then we'll see what we have and we'll go from there."
Lenox Selectman Kenneth Fowler agreed that "this is an opportunity we have to take advantage of, considering the options. We'll have to see a lot more information on it, but we can't let it go by."
As Lenox Selectman David Roche noted, "the communities are looking for any kind of efficiencies they can gain over the course of years."
Ahead of the board's approval of Carlino's letter to the state, Roche described exploration of the idea as "a benefit to the taxpayer. Down the road, as we're facing the increasing costs of operating town government, there may be efficiencies by working out shared services."
Lenox Selectman Warren Archey said he was keenly anticipating "food for thought" from the state Department of Revenue. "I'm very impressed with our town manager's enthusiasm and willingness to push ahead," he said. "We're making a lot of progress on this."
In their own words ...
Comments from local government leaders as Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge begin exploring a possible shared town manager:
"Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge recognize that population decline combined with increasing service demands require us to face our challenges collaboratively and more efficiently."
— Lee Selectboard Chairwoman Patricia Carlino, in a letter to the state Department of Revenue, Division of Local Services
"It's been the commitment of this board to look into change, even change that sounds scary, something the town's never taken on before — not to do it, or decide to do it, but to investigate it. I think that's an obligation we have under the inter-municipal agreement."
— Lenox Selectman Channing Gibson
"We're at the beginning, the cutting edge, I wish we weren't. I wish we were one of 100 communities that have done this already so that we were not the pathfinders. But that's the reason we need help, to make sure the discussion proceeds, along with record-keepers and people who introduce the reality principle."
— Stockbridge Selectman Stephen Shatz
"Looking ahead 10 or 15 years, the more we can accomplish together, the better off we're going to be. We can attract higher caliber people if we're a larger community."
— Lenox Selectman David Roche