Richmond, West Stockbridge weigh possibility of shared administrator

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WEST STOCKBRIDGE — With the upcoming retirement of West Stockbridge Town Administrator Mark Webber, leaders in that community and neighboring Richmond are exploring a potential agreement to share a town administrator and hire an assistant for both communities.

Under the plan, Richmond Town Administrator Mark Pruhenski would handle operational responsibilities for both towns. If the two select boards agree on the plan, it could take effect this summer as Webber heads toward retirement.

"Right now, we're just at the early stages, gauging interest from the two towns and creating a proposal," Pruhenski said.

The adjoining towns already collaborate on ambulance services, building inspection, animal control, assessors, Highway Department tasks, a Council on Aging and a Community Health Organization nurse. Also, the West Stockbridge police help cover Richmond in emergency situations, on request of the state police or the emergency management director of each town.

The scenario under discussion in the two towns mirrors the chief administrative officer arrangement in Lenox and Lee, now well into its third year under Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen, who has provided suggestions on the workings of a shared setup.

Webber and West Stockbridge Select Board Chairman Bernard Fallon broached the idea to Richmond leaders, Pruhenski said. Each select board has discussed the concept at public meetings this month.

Pruhenski, Webber, Fallon and Richmond Select Board Chairman Neal Pilson have met several times, starting in January, to discuss the best way to proceed and to work on a written proposal. A joint public session of the two select boards is scheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday at the West Stockbridge Town Hall in order to gauge community interest.

"Until we get this out there and until the public has an opportunity to weigh in," Pruhenski said, "it's hard to tell what interest or what concerns they'll have. The boards seem very optimistic and supportive of the concept. We're natural partners, right now it's informal, and this would formalize a long history of working together."

As stated in the written document outlining the proposal, "It's important to note that both communities will remain independent in every other aspect, as witnessed in our neighboring communities of Lee and Lenox."

"It's kind of an aggressive timeline," Pruhenski acknowledged, "because Mark wants to retire in June or July." A joint leadership agreement also would require a special act of the state Legislature and a formal intermunicipal agreement.

"There are a lot of moving parts," the Richmond administrator said. At this point, the proposal, subject to revision, calls for hiring a 25-hour a week assistant town administrator to share the workload and ensure full-time coverage in both town halls.

"I think the success or failure of this proposal really hinges on the quality of the candidate we get as an assistant," Pruhenski said. "I can't possibly cover 80 hours a week for both towns, not including night meetings. I would have to rely on a strong, well-qualified assistant who's going to play a really important role in this project."

However, he noted that Webber has offered to stay on for three to six months beyond July 1 as the assistant while promising candidates for the post are considered. "This would be really helpful. because he has all the institutional knowledge in West Stockbridge," Pruhenski said.

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The current version of the proposal would have Pruhenski in Richmond 25 hours a week and in West Stockbridge for 15, while the assistant would spend 15 hours in West Stockbridge and 10 in Richmond.

The costs of the arrangement would be split, 54 percent for Richmond, with 35 hours of supervisory coverage, and 46 percent for West Stockbridge, with 30 hours.

"The idea would be that I would take on the responsibilities of West Stockbridge," Pruhenski said, "and it would not be a competitive process for this position."

The 25-hour assistant administrator job, a new one, would be posted and advertised by the two towns.

There would be no change in the current leadership structure, so a joint town administrator would not have hiring or firing power for employees or be enabled to sign contracts. Both would remain Select Board responsibilities, though Pruhenski can make staffing recommendations.

Neither town has a charter that has to be followed for hiring, he pointed out, nor hiring policies that require jobs to be posted, "so we're not violating any town bylaw or charter."

Based on current budgets, the two towns would spend $205,600 in fiscal year 2020 on administrative leadership, including the two salaries, health benefits and incidental expenses. Under the shared administrator model, the bottom line would total $202,000.

"The savings would be kind of irrelevant," Pruhenski pointed out. "The point isn't to save money; it's to attract and retain qualified staff through a higher salary, more responsibility and avoiding competition for hiring."

"In theory, the two towns are stronger together, and more efficient," he emphasized. Down the road, though, he noted that there could be cost savings by sharing benefits packages. When future retirements open up other positions in the two towns, additional shared arrangements might be considered when practical. Beyond staffing, there could be bulk purchasing, shared equipment purchases, shared legal costs, cross-training and succession planning that could benefit both towns, according to the outline of the proposal.

If the shared services model is formally adopted by the select boards of both towns, the joint town administrator would earn $115,000 a year, compared to Pruhenski's $83,000 as of this July 1. An assistant administrator would be paid $40,000 while health benefits for the two positions are projected at $40,000, with $7,000 allotted to expenses.

Under the timeline, if both boards agree to move ahead, a meeting would be set up with state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, to discuss steps toward legislative approval. Pignatelli has been a strong advocate of shared services in towns, as Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito have been.

"We don't expect any bumps in the road or complications," Pruhenski said, referring to state lawmakers.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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