SHIRLEY — “My first term was a huge learning curve,” said Selectman Armand “Andy” Deveau. He is running in the May 10 Town Election for a second three-year term.
Former selectman Chip Guercio is challenging Deveau for a seat on the three-member board.
Deveau set three major goals — operations, emergency management and future planning.
Citing his business background as a building contractor, Deveau said his first term taught him that corporate and municipal management are not the same. “It’s something to overcome,” he said.
Deveau learned that a town doesn’t run like a business and selectmen are not CEOs. “Boards of selectmen are bound by myriad state, local and federal laws,” he said. “You learn that a selectman’s authority is limited to actions of the board as a whole.”
“You go in with a plan, ideas, different personal priorities,” he said. “You’re not required to be unanimous all the time, but what counts is the leadership of the board.”
“I came in with things I wanted to accomplish,” Deveau said. Solar initiatives, for example, a campaign goal he pursued as a selectman. Recently, the board agreed to join a municipal consortium whose aim is to bring companies to member communities to build solar facilities. In Shirley, the proposal is to site a solar farm on land owned by the Water Department off Patterson Road. It would provide electricity for municipal needs and then some. “We made some strong forward movement for the community,” he said.
Starting the annual budget cycle “$2 million in the hole” was a dilemma selectmen faced when he came on board. The question then was how to make ends meet without decimating departments and town services. “What would you cut?” he asked. “You’re faced with obstacles from day one.” Ultimately, $2.5 million was “slashed,” to balance the budget.
But the selectmen don’t make decisions alone. “Others have power, too,” he said, such as the Finance Committee, health and planning boards. “We create policy, drive change,” Deveau said. And it’s the selectmen’s job to see that initiatives are carried out.
Continuing the job description, Deveau said the board prepares Town Meeting warrants, makes committee and other appointments and hires town counsel. This board made a change when it discontinued a long-standing affiliation with one law firm to hire another. Attorney Gary Brackett now represents the town.
The board also grants permits and licenses, hires or appoints professional staff and authorizes related expenditures. “Beyond that, we delegate work to appropriate people,” Deveau said. The selectmen do not — should not — do it all. A key function is to “encourage” people who work for the town, let them do their jobs, he said.
Besides balancing the budget, other proactive moves included creating job descriptions for town employees and establishing a performance evaluation process. The new paradigm clearly identifies responsibilities. “Now everyone knows” which functions are part of their jobs and which are not, he said.
The selectmen also asked the Department of Revenue for an audit of town financial operations and acted on its recommendations, with 19 of 21 items completed to date. The DOR report noted things the town does right as well as areas for improvement. “It was good to know we were in line in many ways and to put checks and balances on ourselves,” he said.
The selectmen established acceptable computer and Internet use policies — a first — and re-established the Personnel Board. A new Employee Handbook is due out soon. “That was key,” Deveau said.
Some policies and procedures were to clear the books of moribund information that in some cases caused costly errors, such as mistakenly continuing insurance or retirement payments.
The new setup is designed to prevent that.
The new “check in, check-out” process matches up entry and exit checklists. New hires who receive building keys must return them on the way out, and the status of benefit packages is reviewed. This is the time to settle accounts.
While working on better business practices, the board tackled tough challenges. Going after delinquent taxes, for example.
When Deveau joined the board, the backlog of uncollected taxes — bypassed for over 20 years — was $1.5 to $2 million. Now, over a half million dollars in back taxes has come back to the town, along with an initial investment of $50,000, as promised. Appointing the Tax Collection Committee, which Town Meeting voters agreed to fund, was “so instrumental” in that process,” Deveau said.
Deveau chaired the TCC’s first meeting. The aim was to “stop the bleeding” and create fair policies that would be sensitive to people needing help and “slam the door” on scofflaws, he said. One big step was a policy that allows the board to withhold or revoke permits and licenses until taxes and sewer fees are paid. In that effort, they’ve had full cooperation from other boards such as the building inspector and health and zoning boards, Deveau said.
The board also had to get a handle on emergency management.
During “the worst recession in our lifetime, we were forced to deal with a decline in funding,” Deveau said. State revenues were ebbing when the area was hit by the 2008 ice storm. “Roads had to be closed, shelters opened, downed trees were everywhere.” Part of Walker Road fell in near the Ice House dam and the Phoenix Pond bridge gave way. “A lot of fast action had to take place” and it did, Deveau said.
Last summer, the Town Offices HVAC system failed. On the hottest days, second-floor offices reached 90 degrees and employees either had to move or go home. Problematic since the building was constructed, the situation is finally under control, Deveau said.
Then came the town administrator scandal. “Nobody could have foreseen that,” Deveau said. But the selectmen acted decisively, terminating the administrator then implementing an “emergency management” plan that included employee support. “The fallout could continue for a long time,” he said.
The plan included hiring a new administrator. (Ultimately, the title was changed to chief administrative officer to fit an updated job description.) The new CAO, Dave Berry, has extensive planning background, said Deveau, who has expertise in that area himself, both professionally and as a member and chairman of the Planning Board for several years.
Assessor Ron Marchetti, a retired corporate executive, agreed to step in as interim town manager for the transition period. With no hiring process in place, “he spent a lot of time doing that,” Deveau said. But although he provided many hours of valuable time on a volunteer basis, there was a caveat: cooperation. “He made it a mandate” that a directive from selectmen had to come from the full board before he’d act on it, Deveau said.
Residential taxpayers bear the brunt of operating costs in Shirley, since only nine percent of the tax base is commercial and industrial. Ayer, by comparison, has a 50/50 balance. “We need more,” Deveau said. “We recognize that is a huge problem.”
A handpicked Economic Development Committee has been mapping out strategies for growth, mindful of state incentive programs such as chapter “43B” and the advantages of a streamlined permit process for targeted areas under the program.
“I chaired the first meeting” of the EDC, Deveau said. His directive was to up the town’s total assessed value to $100 million and generate $1.5 million more in annual revenue. “We wouldn’t be talking about deficits,” in that scenario, he said.
The vision also includes preserving the town’s “rural character,” Deveau said, and he figures a 30-percent growth would not jeopardize it. “I think we can find parcels of land to do that,” he said, such as Shirley’s “village growth” area on Devens.
Regional services shared with “willing partners” might cut costs without negative impact. One example is the Devens Regional Dispatch Center. Downsized from an earlier plan to build a “Taj Mahal,” it would be a combined emergency dispatch hub for member towns and might save Shirley up to $80,000 a year, Deveau said.
Red tape and turf tiffs aside, “the question to ask is what is best for the community,” he said. If the town could save that much money, it might be used to hire two police officers.
Deveau also supports the capital plan.
In the past, lists of planned capital expenditures always had wheels, he said — fire trucks, plows, police cars — but did not include building and road repairs and replacements. It makes sense to cover those things, too, he said. For example, the Phoenix Pond bridge collapse may be traced to a collapsed culvert that was patched instead of replaced.