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Natick

Members quit fiscal task force in protest

By Megan McKee
Globe Correspondent / February 11, 2010

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Two years after Natick’s selectmen set up a task force to rein in the town’s spending and prevent property-tax increases, six of the panel’s seven members have resigned in protest, saying their years of hard work have been ignored and undermined.

The resignations, tendered this week during the Board of Selectmen’s meeting, arrive as local voters prepare to vote next month on a request for raise property taxes for a new $89 million high school and a $10 million community and senior center.

The Expense Control Task Force was formed in January 2008, composed of volunteers offering professional expertise and varying views on fiscal management. Members said it met about 25 times, interviewed many department heads, and developed a number of suggestions - some simple, some complicated, and some politically charged - that they estimated would save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

But after formally presenting their findings to the selectmen two times, nothing has been implemented, the task force’s members said. Only one of the many suggestions - a study of Natick’s ambulance service - has been pursued, and task force members were never consulted during the process.

“We asked to participate in the EMS study a year ago,’’ said member Barbara Honthumb. “The offer wasn’t taken up.’’

Selectwoman Kristine Van Amsterdam, who chairedthe task force, accepted blame “for not being able to cajole or convince’’ her fellow selectmen on the task force’s recommendations. The proposals included consolidation of several town functions with similar ones in the school department.

The panel never expected all of the recommendations to be enacted, Van Amsterdam said, but its members were “disheartened’’ at the lack of discussion of their proposals,

“Disagreement is part of the discussion that needs to take place,’’ she said.

Selectman John Ciccariello, the board’s chairman, said he was frustrated at not being able to implement some of the suggestions. He said part of the difficulty came in sorting out who would be responsible for overseeing operations in the departments where there was consolidation.

“The concern is really who’s going to lead the parade and who’s going to be in charge,’’ Ciccariello said during the selectmen’s meeting Monday night.

Task force members were especially critical of what they view as the school district’s lack of involvement in the cost-saving process.

Task force member Tony Lista, who also serves on the town’s Finance Committee and provided the impetus behind the panel’s founding, said the group believed consolidation in four areas now handled separately by the town and the school district would bring immediate and recurring savings. The areas were information technology, human resources, purchasing, and facilities and maintenance.

“It is strategically imperative that Natick achieve structural change in how general government and the school department operate. Status quo is neither optimal nor sustainable,’’ the task force’s report to selectmen stated.

But hope for the changes disintegrated when the School Committee’s representative, Dirk Coburn, resigned from the task force in April to serve as chairman of the school board. The School Committee has not supplied a replacement for him, members said.

“If you’re going to be making long-term structural changes for the town, you needed to have everyone in line in the same direction. Once he resigned, the School Committee has just never seen it as an important part of the process,’’ said Lista.

Other members were also critical.

Member Mari Barrera said that for her panel’s proposed changes to work, both the town and school administrators would have to be involved in the process. “We can’t do this effectively without having both sides,’’ she said.

Jeff Silverstein, the only member who didn’t resign, said the School Committee has been “boycotting’’ the task force meetings, adding that “the fact that they haven’t been participating is unacceptable.’’ He pointed out that the schools made up about 60 percent of Natick’s budget this fiscal year, and officials are asking residents to support paying for the new high school. “To not participate in the working of the task force, to me, is irresponsible,’’ he said.

Coburn said the School Committee nominated a member to join the task force last year, but selectmen unexpectedly declined to approve the choice. “The School Committee and school administration have remained open to meeting with the leaders of the task forces, and with the town administration,’’ Coburn stated in a written response.

He also said the task force never reached the point of analyzing the actual dollar savings for the suggestions. He used Andover’s human resources consolidation as an example of a well-intentioned savings idea that ended up costing the town more than the original arrangement.

Lista acknowledged the task force was never charged with analyzing figures but said he and fellow members estimated Natick could save hundreds of thousands annually. It is an amount that takes on even greater significance with Natick facing a $3.14 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year starting July 1, he said.

Lista said that both selectmen and the town administrator could have started pursuing changes, including a number of ideas in addition to the four major structural recommendations. The list includes the elimination of employee perks such as the overnight use of town-owned vehicles, clothing allowances, and mileage reimbursement. They suggested that union contract negotiations be better synchronized and organized to save the town money; that the money-losing town-owned Sassamon Trace Golf Course be closed or privatized; and that the payroll for all employees be moved to a biweekly schedule.

“We learned things that raised our eyebrows, and things that were disappointing,’’ said task force member Silverstein. He said that when he chose to volunteer for the committee, he knew there was a good chance their work would be ignored. “My understanding from the beginning was that we were an advisory group and advisory groups can get pushed aside,’’ he said.

Town Administrator Martha White said at the meeting she understands the tangible results didn’t match the work that members contributed, but town employees do strive to make improvements. “We do a lot of things really well,’’ she said. “We’ve implemented a number of reforms . . . I think one of our faults is not talking about that enough.’’

Selectmen Carol Gloff and John Connolly expressed regret at the resignations, and said they hope the task force’s members will consider volunteering for future incarnations of the panel if the Board of Selectmen decides to continue it.

Ciccariello said the fiscal outlook is bleak, and the town needs to save money: “We will have to make changes in Natick.’’

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