BARRE — At least three name changes, two fewer department heads, the potential creation of three positions, and a revised City Council meeting schedule are among the recommendations of a report that could serve as a blueprint for optimizing the way the city does business.
None of the changes will occur immediately, and some may not happen at all, but the report that the special projects manager, Patricia McDonald, prepared at the request of City Manager Steve Mackenzie will serve as a springboard for a discussion of the city’s organizational structure.
The review was in the works before City Engineer Reg Abare announced earlier this year he will be retiring in July and long before Michael Miller, director of permitting, planning and inspection services, accepted a comparable job in Montpelier starting next month. However, McDonald said neither of those developments influenced her recommendations or altered her conclusion that, with a little bit of streamlining and some investments, the city can be more efficient and more effective.
“I think there’s opportunities here,” she said, adding, however, that if the council was looking for cost savings it isn’t apt to find them.
McDonald, who compared Barre with comparably sized Vermont communities, isn’t recommending the city shed payroll or personnel.
“We are understaffed,” said McDonald, who has suggested hiring a finance manager, an assistant planner and an executive secretary for the manager’s office, though not necessarily in that order.
According to McDonald, the finance manager might be shared with a nearby community and the secretary could be full or part time.
Although she has developed cost estimates for the suggested positions, which could be phased in as the budget allows, that information hasn’t been shared with councilors. They have only briefly discussed the report and plan to make it the focus of a series of meetings that will begin May 14.
“This is not going to happen overnight,” McDonald cautioned in an interview this week. “This (strategic planning) takes a lot of effort and commitment, and I get the sense that that’s there.”
The council’s first discussion of McDonald’s report is planned for the day after the city’s budget revote. Councilors will spend the first session discussing her recommendation to consolidate three departments — facilities, recreation and cemeteries and parks — into one.
The idea is not new. It first surfaced when the council was struggling to get its budget passed two years ago, but there doesn’t appear to be any immediate savings and likely would be some additional expense under the version McDonald has recommended.
The plan would create a single facilities, recreation, cemeteries and parks department that would allow the elimination of two department head positions while retaining the two veteran city employees who now hold them.
The report contemplates Facilities Director Jeff Bergeron being in charge of the new department and Recreation Director Stephanie Quaranta and Cemetery and Parks Director Dwight Coffrin serving as his assistants, without any reduction in their salaries.
In fact, according to McDonald, the consolidation would likely require a raise for Bergeron and “have the potential for creating a strong and broad-reaching team that will strengthen the performance outcomes of the new … department.”
She has also asked the council to consider merging the civic center committee and the recreation board in the interest of efficiency.
McDonald hasn’t proposed any major changes to the city’s Police Department and Fire and Ambulance Department, though she has suggested they be formally merged into a single public safety department and that Tim Bombardier, who has been pulling double duty as police and fire chief, be given the title of public safety director.
In addition to reducing the number of department heads that report directly to the manager, McDonald has proposed hiring an executive secretary who would free the assistant to the city manager to provide additional administrative support while fulfilling the human resource administrator’s role that has become a primary function of that position.
According to McDonald, the addition of an assistant planner would increase support in a department she has suggested be renamed the Department of Permitting, Planning and Assessing. The name change acknowledges that the inspection services function of the department has been reassigned to the Fire Department and would bring the city’s contract assessor under the supervision of whoever replaces Miller. The proposed assistant could work on grant writing, special projects and project management in a department that has been active on all fronts and, in McDonald’s view, understaffed.
If there is a department McDonald is still struggling with in terms of a recommendation, it is Public Works. She has some ideas but isn’t completely satisfied with them, and Abare’s looming retirement after 45 years on the job creates an opportunity to tinker with its organization in a way that is more structured and improves communication.
Most of the rest of McDonald’s recommendations don’t have financial implications and could be quickly implemented. They include beefing up public relations, developing “performance measures” for all departments, securing a vote on the Barre Area Development Inc. board of directors, and shifting to biweekly council meetings.
There is some resistance to meeting every other week instead of weekly — a proposal that was pitched as a way to free up some of the time Mackenzie spends preparing for meetings.
Councilors will discuss the report in segments starting with the proposed consolidation of the Facilities, Recreation, and Cemetery and Parks departments May 14. They will shift to public safety, the manager’s office and planning on May 27 before wrapping up with the Public Works Department, finance and some of the cost-neutral recommendations June 10.
The goal is to implement some of the changes July 1 while developing a plan to pursue some of the others.
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