Stonington releases operations report

Stonington — The town released the $15,000 report it commissioned to analyze its operations on Friday, and it shows that while there are improvements to be made, the town is being managed well.

“Based on my years of involvement with the municipal government in Connecticut, and my experience working with numerous towns and cities I conclude that while internal challenges exist in various areas studied, the external view of the Town of Stonington is positive with the town being fortunate to have the overall leadership, staff and public support to create an inviting and pleasurable place to live, own a business and visit,” wrote consultant Keith Chapman, the former town manager of Newington.

He added that the residents and businesses with which he spoke were pleased with town services and how they are delivered, how the town responds to emergencies and were impressed that the town undertook the study.

The town had refused to release the report over the past two months, saying it was a draft. The Board of Selectmen voted Wednesday to release the report after First Selectman Rob Simmons said he only made some minor phrasing and copy editing changes and deleted the names of town employees but left in their positions.

Simmons said Chapman interviewed almost every town employee and department head. The report does not include the school and police departments, which are overseen by their own boards.

Simmons said he was happy to see the results even though it says “you have some problems.”

Simmons said he shared the report with town staff and they responded to how they are addressing Chapman’s 56 recommendations, which are divided up into items that should be immediately addressed over the next six months, the next 12 months and the next 24 months. Simmons said some of the departments already have addressed some of the immediate concerns while Chapman was developing his report, such as installing GPS systems in Highway Department vehicles and contracting with Ledge Light Health District to take over the town’s sanitation and health department, which needed more resources.

“This is designed to be a tool for me as a manager to address a multitude of challenges facing the town over the next few years,” Simmons said Friday.

“The staff now knows what the recommended policies are and what we are trying to do,” he added.

Simmons said that since he took office, the answer “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is not acceptable if the town wants to improve its efficiency and operations.

Chapman’s 26-page report plus attachments contain numerous observations and findings.

He found that the town’s ability to hire “the best and the brightest” is hindered by the election of a first selectman every two years and the fact the first selectman is not in charge of hiring all department heads and directors. He found the town does not have a solid chain of command in place, with employees sometimes contacting elected officials to accomplish their objectives. Prior to Simmons taking office, he said the town had not placed any emphasis on training and mentoring and new employees essentially were on their own.

Overall he found staff morale high, department heads very competent and clerical workers performing higher levels of work, saving the town money. He added a salary study is needed for upper-level non-union members to avoid the departure of quality employees.

“It is clear that the Town is recently transitioning away from the toxic work environment of the past four or five years that resulted in a number of experienced employees terminating town service. Those departures have left the Town’s operations at a loss, with new hires continuing through the learning curve. The recent changes in Board of Selectmen and within the Administration have, in some areas, such as the Planning and Human Services, brought consistency and professionalism into the operations,” Chapman wrote.

He said that overall the town is not under- or overstaffed, but did recommend adding staff in some areas. He also recommended a succession plan for staff nearing retirement.

He recommended increased training to reduce costs and increase productivity, team building, implementing standard operating procedures and implementing zero-based budgeting at least every five years instead of just adding to the previous year’s budget.

“Stonington appears to be holding on to some traditions and practices that if curtailed would result in reducing avoidable and unnecessary costs for the taxpayers, while in some cases, increasing productivity and service delivery,” he wrote.

He recommended that departments create monthly progress reports and found that some clerical and middle management staff feel they lack information from their superiors when dealing with the public.

He praised Simmons’ weekly and now bi-monthly staff meetings, saying they have been well attended and well received by staff “with many saying they were long overdue.”

He made the most recommendations for the highway department, which is by far the town’s largest department, some of which Public Works Director Barbara McKrell accomplished while Chapman’s report was being developed, such as long-term plans for replacing trucks and other equipment, an annual calendar of operations and planning for a worst-case-scenario blizzard.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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