Archive 2008 - 2019

Coming Soon: A DPW for Holliston

by William Dowd

After a pair of meetings on Tuesday, September 11, 2013, it’s now clear that the Selectmen are full speed ahead on a takeover of the Water Department. I have not been a fan of this move for a number of reasons. However, after watching the events of the past few months, it’s clear that the problems plaguing our water system cannot be handled by an independent Board of Water Commissioners any longer. Almost by default, reorganizing into a Department of Public Works under the Selectmen appears to be our only hope, and that in itself is cause for concern. 

The current Board of Selectmen, as well intentioned as they are, are three very busy people WITHOUT the duties of Selectman. They care very much about the Town and its residents, but they simply do not have the time or skills to manage a $20 million dollar business on the side. The Town has no strategic plan, no set of common operating principles, no community vision or performance objectives, a disjointed collection of appointing authorities for department heads and staff, a loose and incomplete collection of policies that often require the same subject to be deliberated over and over again, multiple independent elected boards and committees controlling budgets and staffing, an outdated and woefully incomplete capital outlay plan, decaying physical facilities with no plan for upgrade or replacement, and I could go on. They spend lots of time on matters of relatively low impact. Just last night, the Board spent more than a few minutes discussing the process and payment responsibility for appliance repairs at the restaurant at Pinecrest. 

Contrast that with our Schools. There, we have a very strong Superintendent with clear authority, and orderly and vertically aligned organization, objectives and accountability. We have a strategic plan, operating principles, disciplined and comprehensive policies, and a physical plant to be proud of. We have a volunteer School Committee that hires the Superintendent, develops an annual budget and ensures performance against the Superintendent ‘s and system’s performance objectives. And what have we gotten with all this? One of the highest performing school districts in the state at one of the lowest cost per pupil. That’s impressive. 

What we have to ask ourselves is how can we abide the successful track record of our schools and the $30,000,000 they spend every year, and continue with a circa 1958 Town government spending the other $20,000,000? I am certainly not the first one to point this out, but on the verge of piling even more responsibility onto an overburdened, part time, volunteer Board of Selectmen, we need to start the process of reorganizing, modernizing and professionalizing our Town Government. A number of Towns have made the move to a Town Manager form of government where a strong executive works through a policymaking Board of Selectmen. Some of those experiences have not been great, but we can learn from those who’ve gone before us, and fashion a Town government system that is just as effective, just as efficient and just as high performing as our Schools are. 

While the DPW plan is far from finalized, most versions call for the hiring of an additional employee in the role of Director of the DPW. That’s going to cost another $120,000 or so between pay and benefits. Offsetting this cost is talk of soft savings in synergy and operational efficiency. I’m very skeptical. And when we’re done, we’ll have a bigger payroll, with more people with bigger problems looking to the Board of Selectmen for direction, goals and solutions to those large and complex problems. I think we can, and should, do better. Let’s put the wheels in motion to change our form of government.

Comments (8)

So on one hand we need a more centralized government but on the other hand we don't that is my take away from this article. Let's be realistic, our town government costs us very little considering all the work these volunteers do. What else would you have them do? Should we dispense with elections of the Selectmen and FinCom and hire "professionals". That would only cost us more, they would be responsible to no one and could create way more problems than they solve. I for one have always favored a DPW. It can work very efficiently and reduce over cost for the departments involved. A centralized management promotes a better use of resources. That is my bottom line. Holliston has a problem that has nothing to do with the selectmen or other elected officials. It's called apathy. Local election turn outs are horrible and town meeting attendance is embarrassing. There are a core of dedicated people in this town that do a lot for little or no pay. Yes things can always be better, but I for one value the accountability and the cross section of opinions that we currently have. We do not mismanage our funding, in fact we have been to do far more with less money than other towns, due to the level of commitment of our officials.

Mark Schultz | 2013-09-19 12:05:13

Hi Holliston Parent, Just want to correct some of your information. I believe the schools are 55-60% of the town's annual budget, not 75%. Further, we have reduced a number of administrative staff over the past number of years, including a Director of Technology and Student Management staff. Holliston's Administrative cost per pupil ranks 229th out of 313 districts in the state, spending an average of $390 administratively per pupil vs. the state average of $471. For a district of nearly 3000 children, Holliston has a Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, a Business Manager, and a Director of Student Services. Please don't hesitate to contact me with any other questions or comments. Thanks!

Erica Plunkett | 2013-09-16 12:11:31

If municipal government took almost 75% of taxpayers money for services (with top-heavy administration), the way the schools do, maybe we wouldn't be having these issues with overworked volunteers and understaffed offices.

Holliston Parent | 2013-09-15 16:35:55

Yes, yes, yes to all that this author suggests. I think all of us appreciate the time and effort that our volunteer selectmen put in. However, we need to modernize and streamline our town government as soon as possible. The comparison with the schools is an excellent one. We need a strong executive with the time and energy to help to structure and then carry out a comprehensive plan for the future.

resident | 2013-09-15 16:05:28

One more thing: $120,000 is probably realistic for the salary and fringe cost of a DPW Director. However, add an office, someplace in Town, clerical support and a town owned vehicle. Very soon, given the current state of the Foundry, Holliston will need a new DPW facility. (Get the feeling that the proverbial camel is sticking his nose under the tent?) It is currently being proposed the all of this be initially paid for simply by eliminating the present position of Water Superintendent.

Jeff Weise | 2013-09-15 13:56:46

Bill, at the town meeting, Oct 28, there will probably be an item to form a DPW. Are you now recommending that people vote for it, even though the DPW will be expensive, is still ill-defined, and of questionable value, or first reorganize the entire town?

Jeff Weise | 2013-09-15 13:46:00

We can elect and/or appoint anybody we want to fill the planning and management gaps in this town. If we don't develop 21st century thinking to handle our 21st century problems, we will continue to spiral downward into band-aid emergency management mode. We should be moving toward localized energy independence, affordable housing policies that don't zone to put all the "poor people" in tracts, provisions for extreme weather, stewardship of our open spaces, and above all water management that can foresee the costs and "inconveniences" that will be coming as we face continued shortages, floods and pollution of the aquifers. I hope the selectmen are thinking about young people with resourceful approaches, and not just more "I've got mine" policies.

Longtime resident | 2013-09-15 10:18:37

Downsizing, anybody?

John Losch | 2013-09-15 08:37:32