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Public Works Panel Digs Deep Into Budget For Savings



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Public Works Panel Digs Deep

Into Budget For Savings

By John Voket

Chairman Richard Woycik went into a protracted noontime meeting of the Legislative Council Public Works Committee March 28 with questions about big ticket capital purchases, and a slim hope that when all was said and done his group could suggest an avenue of possible budget savings for next year.

But after nearly three-and-half hours, Mr Woycik emerged with some degree of comfort that capital purchases of a Parks Department bulldozer and new street sweeper for the Highway Department were warranted. He also could not readily see how added budget savings could be achieved without compromising a level of service Mr Woycik said taxpayers both expected and deserved.

“There is a sentiment to hold the line on the budget, or at least to reduce the [proposed] increase if possible,” Mr Woycik said. “But when you’re dealing with contractual increases, and those represent the bulk of the tax increase, it’s a challenge to hold the line.”

The committee chairman said his personal preference would be to bring taxpayers a minimal increase.

“I hope we can find a way to provide [the town and schools] a level of service people expect, while remaining mindful of the current economic conditions,” he said, adding that the space for any financial wiggle room between department requests and diminishing service delivery to residents “is pretty tight.”

While the committee adjourned without a vote, Mr Woycik is expecting to reconvene Monday, April 4, to complete a review of the parks and public works budget proposals, and to vote on a recommendation to the council’s Finance Committee, and subsequently the full council.

Mr Woycik said that he went into the meeting with questions of his own, as well as those tendered by other council representatives who were not on his committee. The most daunting frustration, he said, was to see if any positive adjustments could be leveraged from proposed personnel expenditures.

“I was interested in hearing the justifications for the salary lines,” he said. “And I recognize that it is driven by bargaining and contractual stipulations.”

Councilman and committee member James Belden shared some of the same frustration. He told The Bee real savings would not be realized until management had more say in how personnel could be used, not just within departments, but across the entire scope of town projects.

“We have to make sure we’re getting the work done,” Mr Belden said. “And while we know subcontracting out some work actually saves us money, until we are doing as much of the work as possible with our own personnel, we won’t be able to see real savings in labor costs.”

He said in the end, stressing productivity is the key, along with “memorializing and institutionalizing” a collaborative but informally managed system by which trades personnel are loaned or borrowed across department lines — for instance if Parks & Rec needs a plumber for an emergency fix, and they request that person from the school district’s trades pool.

“As always, issues around how labor is being supervised, and dealing with bargaining units will always be a struggle,” Mr Belden said.

Mr Woycik said the committee discussed “philosophically” with public works chief Fred Hurley, Parks Director Amy Mangold and Assistant Director Carl Samuelson, but could do little to change the staffing and management practices in place that are part and parcel to negotiated labor contracts.

“We talked philosophically about how we could employ more effective management of personnel expenses given the constraints of our contracts,” Mr Woycik said. “Speaking for myself, I think in the long-term our town government and its department heads need to take a hard look at how we can more effectively utilize our [human resources] and incorporate those new practices into our labor contracts.”

He said contracted mandates including minimum staffing standards, assigned duties, management expectations, and job descriptions leave department heads with few prerogatives or the flexibility they may sometimes need to get more things done with less.

“It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room, but somebody has to start talking about it,” he said. “I know it’s a long-term process, but as a nation, a state, and a community, we have to start looking at ways to make more efficient and effective use of our personnel.”

Mr Woycik believes there has to be a systematic policy of “encouraging all department heads to begin thinking about spending Newtown taxpayers’ money as wisely as possible.”

In terms of the largest capital requests, Mr Woycik said the phased expenditures and the return on investment for purchasing a new bulldozer and street sweeper appeared to be reasonable. During finance board and selectmen budget discussions, Parks officials explained that the amount being spent to rent bulldozers for large local projects could be offsetting a purchase, and then the equipment would be available to any town department that would otherwise rent.

And Mr Hurley made a solid case for Newtown replacing a nearly two-decade-old sweeper, which was becoming excessively costly because parts were no longer being made for the unit. He also said owning a sweeper and staffing it with town personnel provided additional savings versus hiring an outside vendor to perform street sweeping, some of which is mandated by recently enacted environmental laws.

Mr Belden, who is also an environmental advocate by profession, also praised the public works chief for his effective and environmentally sensitive management of winter road salt programs. The council officials encouraged Mr Hurley to continue to be vigilant as new money-saving winter management practices come on line.

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