Archive 2008 - 2019

Should Holliston have a Department of Public Works

by William Dowd

The Selectmen are engaged in a campaign to bring the currently separate Highway, Water and Parks departments into a single combined Department of Public Works (DPW). Their theory is that there are operational synergies and efficiencies that will improve service to the Town. They are also convinced that the best time to do this is concurrent with the retirement of the current Water Superintendent, which is scheduled for later this year. 

This all sounds pretty logical. And as they repeatedly inform us, many other Towns have a combined DPW, and no one is going the other way – separating the groups apart. 

But it’s feel-good ideas without specifics that often go awry. What we need from the Selectmen is a detailed plan for the combined DPW. Things like: 

1.      The leadership staffing model. How do the separate heads of the sub-departments relate to the DPW Director and what is the division of responsibilities?

2.      How much will the combined DPW save or cost us? Most believe the combination will be more expensive. If so, how is that cost justified?

3.      What’s the facilities plan for the combined department? Can the groups attain the promised synergies continuing to work out of separate garages?

4.      What assurances are there that Water operations won’t be subsidized by other Town workers not charged to water costs nor included in the water cost basis?

5.      Will the Selectmen assure the Town that the Water operation will see proper allocation of other costs like benefits and insurance? The most recent Water rate increase failed to reflect approximately $32,000 in retiree health insurance costs.

6.      What is the Selectmen’s plan for dealing with our aging and failing water pipes? The current Water Commissioners have been satisfied with talking about the problem, and fixing the leaks as they occur. We need a real plan that deals with the real problem. Postponing it only makes the ultimate problem bigger and more expensive to fix.

7.      What’s the Selectmen’s plan for making sure we don’t end up 50 years from today with the same looming system failures? Electric and gas utilities are required to maintain rate structures and capital plans that constantly refresh and update the infrastructure. Our local water utility should do no less. 

Lastly, Holliston’s current form of government under the law is a strong Board of Selectmen, weak Town Administrator. (This refers to positions, not people.) The question in 2013 is, can a part-time, three-member Board of Selectmen really achieve the level of expertise in so many disciplines to effectively direct a Water Department, never mind the many other departments they allegedly already direct. Having expert and professional leaders in these departments is all well and good. But just as is true in any organization, a strong, informed, engaged and visionary leader is needed to make the whole bigger than the sum of its parts. And this Board has been far too inclined to defer to department heads and avoid getting into critical details of the Town’s costs and operations, all the while approving banner requests, parade permits and one-day liquor licenses. Boards of Selectmen may have been capable of such an executive role in 1953, but in 2013, we’re fooling ourselves if we think that by adding a whole new large and complex municipal organization onto the plates of our well intentioned Board of Selectmen is the simple solution to this dilemma. 

Think of our local schools. Imagine where we’d be if all the principals reported to the School Committee. That’s how we’re running the Town. 

The Selectmen deserve the opportunity to make their case to the Town for a combined DPW. For me, how well that case deals with the questions above will be an indication of how thorough and thoughtful it is. 

NOTE: The author is a member of the Finance Committee. His views in this article are his alone, and should not in any way be attributed to the Finance Committee.

Comments (1)

While I don't always Bill, I do on this topic. I was involved the last time this proposal and was strongley against it at the time for the same reason Bill outlines. There were significant "hidden" costs in the proposal that included new positions (DPW Director), new vehicles, and NO reduction in staff or expenses. The rationale around combining two groups is usually motivated by eliminating redundancies and ultimatley reducing costs. Neither of which I have seen in any proposal.

Dan B. | 2013-07-15 05:48:44