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Town sees first fruits of reorganization plan

Elwell tells Selectboard that more work is needed to reach all goals

BRATTLEBORO—Shortly after hiring him as Town Manager in 2015, the Selectboard asked Peter B. Elwell to create a comprehensive review of the town’s workings.

Last August, Elwell presented the Board with a Comprehensive Review of Town Operations, which he likened to a Town Plan, but for every aspect of town government.

At the May 2 regular Selectboard meeting — six months after the review’s publication — Elwell gave the Board an update on its progress, including which of the 50 action items are in the works, already accomplished, will happen in the short-, medium-, and long-term, and which have been deleted.

“The CRTO will probably get more complicated” as time goes on, Elwell told the Selectboard, but for now, 15 items have changed status.

Four items moved from “in-progress” to “already accomplished,” including these three items:

• Town officials created a long-term financial plan, which is a multiyear forecast of expenditures and revenues, beginning with the Fiscal Year 2018 budget.

• Municipal staff completed a review of all current and potential sources of non-tax revenue, with an increase where possible. According to the 2017 update, “Due to State controls on municipal revenue sources, total impact of increases was very small.”

• A review was completed of nonresident recreation fees, with thought given to ensuring nonresidents pay a high enough rate to make up for their not paying property taxes, but not setting the rates so high as to discourage participation.

Eight items went from “short-term” to “in-progress”:

• Municipal staff are now working to increase town communication with state government.

• Oversight has increased for large capital-improvement projects.

• Complete space analysis and planning for public works, recreation, and administrative departments is ongoing.

• Other items, such as increased funding for safety improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists; updating the employee handbook; complete succession planning — staff reorganization and replacement — for all town departments; creating a townwide records-retention policy and records preservation program; and exploring the use of interns, volunteers, and seasonal employees to increase staff capacity in a cost-effective manner.

The CRTO has two new “short-term” items since the document was created.

One calls for using Brooks Memorial Library’s Foundation Center resources to seek “large and small grants to enable the Town to provide programs and complete projects we could not afford with local funding alone,” the 2017 Update says.

The other shifts the town’s emergency preparedness activities, such as planning, training, and emergency operations center procedures, from a “primary emphasis on radiological emergencies to an all-hazards approach,” the Update says.

After receiving quite a bit of negative feedback, Elwell deleted one item from the “short-term” list: Stop providing winter sand for private use of town residents.

The main goal of the CRTO is to provide guidance. “We can be methodical in our planning and stable in our implementation,” Elwell said last August.

Elwell’s objectives for this process are to save money without negatively affecting services, improve services without increasing costs, and prudently increase spending in areas previously cut severely, or in areas where new investment would provide positive results for the community.

For too long, he said, town officials under-invested in municipal infrastructure, and delayed making improvements and maintaining facilities and structures. While this saved money in the short-term, it created emergency situations leading to “wild spikes” in the property tax rate.

With some proactive planning, including budgeting for large projects, the tax rate can see some stabilization, Elwell said last year.

“It’s not that we weren’t doing a good job before,” said Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor, but, she added, the CRTO helps the Selectboard focus.

“It makes everyone’s life a little easier,” O’Connor said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #408 (Wednesday, May 17, 2017).

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