January 19, 2012WAKEFIELD — Last Wednesday, Jan. 11, Wakefield selectmen invited Don Junton of Municipal Resources, Inc. (MRI), to their first meeting of 2012 to go over the scope and schedule of MRI's review of town operations.
MRI is a private consulting firm located in Meredith and in Harrisburg, Penn., that undertakes projects for towns, cities, counties and school districts to help evaluate project and operations and make recommendations. MRI's client list includes 121 towns, including Ossipee, Tuftonboro and Wolfeboro. MRI's recommendations on merging Ossipee's three fire precincts are currently being discussed in that town.
Selectman Chair Ken Paul had met previously with Junton, and at their last meeting of 2011 on Dec. 28 the board had voted to encumber $30,000 from the 2011 budget in order to pay for MRI's evaluation of town operations.
Junton is no stranger to Wakefield. More than 15 years ago he was Wakefield Town Administrator.
Junton explained that when he had met originally with Paul the focus was on the fire department, which, like so many volunteer agencies, was struggling to keep a full roster, but the scope expanded to include all town operations.
MRI uses peer review in its assessments of town operations, bringing in retired fire and police chiefs and CPAs and technology experts with municipal experience who know how towns actually function. They provide critiques and recommendations for both short- and long-term changes to improve operations. Using town-supplied information MRI compares departments with similar-sized towns as to type and pieces of equipment, miles of road to be maintained, and other measures.
Junton pointed out that Wakefield's relation with Brookfield – providing police, fire and waste disposal/recycling services – is "unique in New Hampshire." The only other two towns that cooperate near that scale are Temple and Greenfield, according to Junton. "Cooperation is the future of New England," he said. MRI has worked with more than 400 communities in New England and is now recommending that communities plan capital improvements in conjunction with neighboring towns. Some towns already share tax assessing software as well as assessors.
Selectman Mark Duffy asked how many years of data does MRI look at.
Junton said three to five years. He noted that town functions have evolved: fire departments have largely become EMT departments that also fight fires. Thanks to technology, police can also be the eyes and hears of the community: he cited the example of using Global Positioning System devices to allow a patrolling police car to report a pothole to the highway department with the push of a button. With a minor amount of training police and also help with code enforcement as well as public works. MRI did a study for Bedford on this five years ago.
Junton admitted that some towns just put their reports on a shelf and forget them, but most take action.
Selectman Peter Kasprzyk asked if MRI identifies grant sources for the project it recommends.
Junton responded "There are not a lot of grants out there and there won't be for years," except in the area of public safety, where Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and Staffing For Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grants are still available. He said MRI will share ideas for other communities about sources of revenue. He cited one idea of charging for fire calls after the first three each month. He said many towns are separating core services from those that can be self-supporting through fees.
Paul pointed out that MRI will be meeting with department heads and members of the public during the process. He asked if the dates will be announced in advance.
Junton responded yes, but added that MRI also recommends using online surveys and making use of community television. He said Wakefield was already ahead of many towns in using technology.
Duffy said he was intrigued about sharing resources, such as a salt shed, with other towns, and finding out how efficient the town's services were compared with others. He reiterated a point he has made several times that selectmen have worked hard to cut expenses as far as they dare: if efficiencies cannot be fund to reduce costs further, the next step would be to ask voters what services they can do without. He said the town needed educated answers to questions such as whether the town has too many police officers or too few.
Junton said it can be hard to make changes even when you have supporting data because sometimes people take change personally. He pointed out that there are 230 police chiefs in New Hampshire, and realistically the state may only need 30. He cited Westbrook, Maine, where when the police chief retired they hired a public safety director who oversaw police and fire departments.
Town Administrator Teresa Williams asked when MRI could start.
Junton said they were just finishing a project in New Jersey but could start in February. He said he would send a list of information the MRI team would need in advance.
Resident Jerry O'Connor, who was videotaping the meeting for Wakefield Community Television, asked why there was a rush to encumber money to pay for a MRI study before there had even been a presentation.
Paul explained that he had already met with MRI before.
Kasprzyk added that the board had already reviewed the contract and some of their work and had asked Junton to come to talk with the public. He said the town has reached the point where simply cutting more expenses isn't going to work. "This study will help us set priorities and review efficiencies."
O'Connor responded that he sees such a study as a last resort. He said the town could instead spend six months with people in town doing the same thing. "If we got stuck, we could then call in the experts," he said. He then cited the proposal on the ballot last year to combine Town Clerk and Tax Collector positions that got shot down by voters.
Kasprzyk pointed out that the proposal was seen as being part of a private agenda – his. It's better if any change is proposed by someone else.
O'Connor said, "I don't see the need to spend $10,000 a month when he a cutting elsewhere. I don't see how we need to bring in a headhunter to tell us who to fire." He point out the Road Agent is retiring: he makes $55,000 a year a could be replaced with someone cheaper.
Paul said that this was just one of many issues that the MRI study would address. Duffy added that this was not a headhunting expedition: "we need comparative data with other towns." Kasprzyk said, "You're jumping to conclusions – just what we want to avoid."
Resident Steve Brown asked if the cost given, up to $75,000, is a ballpark figure and if an estimate of how much could be saved would be provided.
Junton said that most communities are not paying for real costs but "kicking costs down the road," especially the cost of maintaining infrastructure. "At some point you are unable to keep what you have." He added that MRI will "probably" recommend combining Town Clerk and Tax Collector because some much is or can be done online or handled by banks. "Everyone wants lower taxes but no one want to live with the consequences." He pointed out that towns are not required to do most of the things they do: they do them because they have always done them. There is nothing a town can't do "if we have the will to do it. I can provide you with all kinds of brilliant ideas, but will voters accept them?"
Selectmen agreed to keep residents informed about the MRI study, including how to participate and dates and times of public hearings.