Guest Column / Combine redundant town, school functions before costs sap services
Published 5:30 pm, Thursday, May 12, 2011
For years, Westport's elected officials have talked about making government more efficient by consolidating duplicative functions, outsourcing and back office reorganization. Our town and schools administrations maintain separate payroll, purchasing, IT and human resources departments and personnel.
Couldn't some or all be combined, with resulting overhead savings? Past investments in technology permit Westporters to buy beach passes, review property assessments and access GIS data from their homes.
This year, the Board of Finance decided it was time to make the idea of government efficiency a reality. We knew that transformational change would not come easily or without sacrifice. Realizing efficiencies means making changes to the status quo that may not be welcome to everyone.
Some managers may no longer run their own departments. Some departments may no longer control their own budgets. Some jobs may have to be reconfigured or eliminated. Temporarily, the remaining employees may have to pick up the slack. Citizens may experience differences in how some administrative services are delivered. Government office hours may be shorter, but, on the plus side, online services will permit citizens to transact business after town hall closes.
Making these changes is hard, because they affect people that we know. So we avoid making them. But the consequences of continuing business as usual will be far worse. Like every state and municipality, Westport faces serious financial problems. The cost of employee benefits is growing faster than revenues. Our infrastructure is expensive to maintain, and we have deferred maintenance to fund other needs. To cover these costs, taxes will have to go up, year after year, with no corresponding improvements in services. In fact, to keep taxes reasonable, the Board of Finance will have to cut services, year after year. This will hurt all Westporters, and employees may lose their jobs anyway.
Faced with this alternative, the bipartisan Board of Finance decided this year that we can no longer afford not to become more efficient. Last budget season, we warned repeatedly that we must begin to consolidate departments and realize efficiencies. We were promised that the process would begin, but, a year later, nothing had happened. This year, we decided that our fiduciary obligation to Westport taxpayers required us to do more than simply jawbone. If no one else would jumpstart the process, we would have to try.
What did we do? We used our only means of influence -- our budget recommendations -- as a catalyst for change. We recommended a reduction of $592,250, or just 0.33% of the $179 million requested budget, to be split between town and schools. Our reductions on the town side were targeted to back office and administrative functions. These were areas where we believed, based on past discussions with department heads and the work of consultants and committees, that consolidation or efficiencies could be achieved relatively quickly, with no impact on the quality of our educational or municipal services. It was important to us to ask the schools to share the sacrifice, even though we could not legally reduce specific lines in the education budget. But we expected that, in any consolidation plan, departments and employees from both town and schools may be asked to give up power and resources.
We knew that we were asking a lot, especially of our town departments, given the relatively smaller size of the town budget and the relatively greater impact of the town-side reductions on departmental operations. As a show of good faith, we did not ask for additional budget reductions on the town side outside of our consolidation and efficiency cuts. And departing from past practice, board members offered detailed suggestions of where savings might be achieved, in some cases offering several alternatives. We also said, come back to us if you can't find efficiencies or you need more money to operate.
The early responses to our actions were positive. Within two weeks, one department had come up with ways to save $40,000. The town and the schools finally began talks on possible consolidation of several back office functions. All of the affected department heads agreed to evaluate their administrative operations with an eye to future savings and report back to us.
Nevertheless, the Board of Finance's budget recommendations are just that -- recommendations. Final budget decisions are made by the Representative Town Meeting. In May, the majority of the RTM reversed the bulk of our recommendations.
Frequently heard comments were, "this is not the right time" and "this is not the right way" to achieve efficiencies. If not now, then when?
We are sure that, just like every Board of Finance member, RTM members made the decisions that they thought were in Westport's best interest. But there is a philosophical difference between the RTM's approach and ours. We think that reform will not come about through talk alone, and that we must set firm deadlines. Each year that we don't act, we risk falling further behind.
Our strategy was not to tell our administrators what to do. It was to provide the incentive for them to use their skill and creativity to think outside of the box about how to organize their offices and functions in more efficient ways. This strategy seemed to be working, and we did not want to abandon it prematurely. We did not want the effort to achieve efficiencies, once begun, to become less urgent.
Neither the Board of Finance nor the RTM has the final word. The Westport taxpayer has the biggest stake in the outcome of this debate. We have to decide as a community whether we want to continue business as usual or whether we want a more efficient town government that can meet of challenge of delivering better services with fewer resources.
We would like to know what you think. Please email the Board of Finance at firstname.lastname@example.org