Can Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge hammer out deal to cut costs but retain individuality?
LENOX — The idea of a shared chief administrator for Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge is much like a fragile, flickering candle — despite strong headwinds, especially from some in Stockbridge, it has yet to be snuffed out.
At a meeting of the tri-town Administrative Review Committee last week, state officials offered a scenario that, if approved by two or three communities, would create a chief administrative officer and two assistant administrators with expertise in human resources and financial management.
The possible restructuring was described in a draft proposal presented by Zack Blake of the state Department of Revenue for review by the committee. He projected an annual combined cost savings for the three towns of $21,936, possibly up to $40,000. State grants up to $200,000 over a three-year period could help transitional and start-up expenses for two or more communities applying.
Blake, who heads the DOR's Division of Local Services' Technical Assistance Bureau, compiled the draft report after team visits to the three towns last spring and interviews with local officials.
"We took a lot of that information to heart," he said. "What we heard loud and clear was that, long-term, we need to reduce our costs." He cited population declines combined with increasing demands for local services. At the same time, budgets are lean and local government is becoming much more complex.
Lenox Selectman Kenneth Fowler, who was named the new chairman of the tri-town review committee, said "We would be foolish not to look at this very closely. We've got an opportunity, and for us to just dismiss it because we want to hold on to old ideas is a little blind."
He conceded major differences among the three towns, "but certainly there's more commonality than differences at this point."
According to Lee Selectwoman Patricia Carlino, efficiency is the primary goal.
"If we're going to look at it, now's the time to do it," she said.
Noting initial skepticism, she said "she was a little more comfortable" with the draft report's description on how the shared services would work. "If it's something that is decided we should do, I think the hardest part will be the logistics of our different governments and how they work."
Stockbridge Selectman Stephen Shatz stressed that the need for "the increased level of professionalism in managing our towns is critical to their success."
Under the potential scenario described by Blake, management of finances and human resources emerged as the top priorities. "These towns were crying for support, and human resources was probably the biggest of those," he said.
However, he said, Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge "did not want to give up the one-on-one relationship they have today with their administrator. That was seen as very valuable, that there was somebody in the office for people to walk in and have conversations with."
An advisory board composed of the three Select Board chairmen in each town would be a backup for the chief administrative officer and two assistants. But the shared leadership team would report to the select boards of Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge.
Reflecting the caution voiced by some Stockbridge residents, Jay Bikofsky, chairman of the town's finance committee, relayed concern about "losing autonomy, the one-on-one relationship. We need to spend time discussing the term of the agreement and how it's phased-in."
He advocated discussion before an open town meeting "to give residents some sense that we can look at this, we can try it, and we're not obligated for life."
Carlino described the importance of involving townspeople.
"We have to agree first and then, if we do, present it to them in a way that will calm their fears of what the future will hold," he she said. "If we believe in it and agree to it, then we can do that in a legible way that they understand. But in the end, we're doing it for them solely for them, not for us."
Sitting in on the meeting, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli pointed out that "I don't think I've ever used the world regionalization, I don't want to go down that path. One of my priorities is maintaining each town's individuality. We're not regionalizing anything, we're consolidating the bureaucracies."
The Lenox Democrat declared that it's crucial that town leaders understand "what am I buying, am I locked in, how do I get out" in case the shared leadership arrangement doesn't work out.
"This is the next historic moment, I believe that we have a very unique special opportunity," Pignatelli said. "But if it doesn't work, you fix it, change it. Very simple. I think there's no risk; I don't see any downside to this whatsoever. If it doesn't work for you, get out."
Blake, suggesting that any inter-municipal agreement can be reviewed, also said: "I don't want to call anybody out in particular, but I would say Stockbridge is ripe for a lot of this improved service level. At the end of the day, none of this is permanent, anything can be amended and changed."
Bikofsky suggested a revised draft proposal should include exit provisions.
The goal was to consider a leadership restructuring to coincide with the retirement of Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason next June, Blake acknowledged, adding that "there's flexibility built into this, and a tremendous amount of local action is required to move these steps forward."
At the same time, Blake said, "It's more important to be thoughtful and to get it right than to be quick about it. There are a lot of moving parts that have to be resolved, and I'd rather get that done correctly than race this through. At the end of the day, we're not here to dictate anything. This is for you guys to be thoughtful about and to move forward."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
In their own words ...
Additional comments during last week's meeting of the Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge Administrative Review Committee on the state's draft proposal for shared leadership among the three towns:
"The trick for us is how to pass this information on. A lot of people are going to look for a 'wow factor,' so something's got to be there to grab people."
— Lenox Selectman Edward Lane
"My bigger fear is the 'oh my' effect. Our population continues to decline, our population is aging, our school enrollment is shrinking, we may wake up someday, 'oh my, what happened, what do we do now?' "
— State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox
"The ability to provide an avenue for accountability on a day-to-day basis, where people can walk into Town Hall and find someone to talk to that was one of the great fears in Lee and I've heard it from various sources in Stockbridge. That needs to be further explained and worked on so people can hear how their voices can continue to be heard."
— Lee Finance Committee member Nicholas Arienti
"There are many other approaches to shared services, lots of options, and I think the cart's way before the horse here. This is one model and we haven't discussed any models in town. It very much feels that I'm listening to a lot of people who already assume this is the right thing. It's sounding like there's a steamroller, really rushing things. This should be something we should be looking at three years from now. Regionalization is definitely a part of what I'm hearing here."
— Stockbridge resident Terry Flynn
"We've been elected to lead, and we listen to a lot of different people when they have opinions, but in the end, we can't let an opportunity to go by without examining it fully. If there are other processes, I haven't heard of them. This is, for the time being, the best thing that we have. If any particular town chooses to opt out, that's the way it goes. No one is saying you have to be involved."
— Lenox Selectman Kenneth Fowler, chairman of the Administrative Review Committee
"The beauty of taking action now is that you can be in control of your own destiny to a certain extent rather than waiting for where other parts of the state are really struggling and there is a real risk of us having to take over. I don't think that's what this region wants and so to put some simple things in place to manage yourselves better is a good thing, and there is not a lot of risk."
— Zack Blake, Massachusetts Department of Revenue's Division of Local Services
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