Falmouth's new $6 million DPW Headquarters on Gifford Street. We built it, will they come?
Is this the 800 lb gorilla comin' to your 'hood?
"If we hadn't been handed the big gorilla this week, we'd be looking at it differently." This telling statement by Falmouth Selectman Mary "Pat" Flynn at last night's meeting of the Board of Selectmen pretty much sums up the reaction of the Board to a long-anticipated discussion of a modernization study of the Department of Public Works which was years in the making. Since the idea emerged over five years ago as part of the Selectmen's annual strategic planning process, employees met internally, discussed sincerely, then presented honestly, their thoughts on how this, the second largest department in Falmouth with over $10 million in annual spending, could run more efficiently and more in sync with 21st century public works practices.
The Selectmen wisely decided to get a second opinion on the internal study, and hired the Matrix Consulting group for $30,000 to conduct a "top to bottom" analysis of DPW personnel and practices. The result was a 200 page detailed offering that, among other things, offered a blueprint for a department that could do more and spend less in the long run, but would have to swallow an initial investment of people and equipment. For example, this department, with nearly 300 vehicles, does not even have a standard diagnostic machine like the corner gas station to diagnose simple mechanical hiccups in the vast DPW fleet. The department has a new $6 million facility - will the face of the department of 2008 match the building?
The people from Matrix did not simply take the template for a DPW the size of the one in Falmouth and plunk in a standardized report. They spent countless hours talking to workers up and down the chain of command and developed a real sense of how the department works, a rare insight into what often gets unfarily tagged as a drain on taxpayers - and is one of the more efficient and productive municipal departments around. That is not to say that Matrix and newly minted DPW Director Ray Jack did not find some areas of improvement with their collective fresh perspectives. They found that the department currently functions without work orders to track specific projects large and small and purchase orders to track dollars. Jack is moving to implement both.
Among other recommendations of the Matrix study were the establishment of a Management Analyst position to track the aforementioned work schedules and act as a "techie" for a more modern department, a Deputy Director, which most towns with much smaller departments have, and a Solid Waste Manager to oversee the collection and disposal of the town's trash, a $2 million annual endeavor.
Jack discussed these and other positions at last night's meeting. He recommended combining the Deputy Director and soild waste positions, saving some $30,000 over what was recommended. He noted that the DPW is now at 1985 staffing levels and that recent significant personnel increases for the Police, Fire, and Library departments were put on hold at the DPW pending the study.
Before the Selectmen could offer any real thoughts, though, Selectman Flynn's gorilla bounded into the room, threatening to gobble up the DPW program for a snack while setting his sights on fire apparatus, police cruisers, and sidewalks as a main course. The gorilla, of course, is the $18.8 million in additional funds needed to complete the Falmouth High School renovation. "The need is there, but the timing is terrible," lamented Board Chairman Kevin Murphy. In an attempt to be "blatantly honest," Murphy sounded what seemed a death knell for the DPW, referencing the "sticker shock" for voters and taxpayers "given the High School situation."
Their objections, however, are not that simple. Nothing in municipal finance ever is. Putting years of hard work and study, not to mention $30,000 in consulting fees on a fast track for DOA is the easy way out. If the gorilla of a High School project means a halt to all new initiatives, why was there no objection to a new bus driver for the Council on Aging? Standing behind this initiative may not be easy or politically expedient right now, but it will lead to a better department and a better-served public and should be actively supported.
Veteran Town Engineer Gaetano "George" Calise slung a bullseye when he noted that the current modernization proposal is "dirt cheap to move in the right direction." It is a common practice and a soundly held belief in the private sector that investment in people and infrastracture yields long-term savings through increased efficiencies and technological advances. Ray Jack and the DPW should be lauded and supported for this, not beaten with a gorilla's oversized hand.
Selectman Ahmed Mustafa warned that if the Board did not support the current proposal, the study would simply join legions of its predecessors and collect dust on a shelf in the corner office. He is right on. Being a fiscal conservative does not mean just saying no to every new spending initiative. It means looking for ways to more wisely spend the people's money. This study and Ray Jack's implementation do this. They should be supported, no matter what the gorilla says.