Massachusetts makeover | Globe Editorial

Efficiency, just a keystroke away

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February 17, 2008

Fourth in a series

THE FRINGE-TOP surrey that dominates the municipal council chambers in Amesbury is a link to the small town's industrial past, when carriage makers, nail manufacturers, and confectioners drove its economy. The sounds of heavy machinery no longer echo through the mills. But a can-do attitude still resonates in this community of 17,000 on the New Hampshire border, where town officials are forging a durable system to improve municipal services, reduce operating costs, and measure the performance of town employees.

Artists and families with healthy incomes are discovering Amesbury's historic districts and river landscapes. But frugality is also a core value in this town, where some people struggle to keep up with average annual tax bills just shy of $5,000. In November, town tax cutters put a $1 million "underride" on the ballot - a seldom-invoked provision of Proposition 2 1/2 - seeking a permanent decrease in Amesbury's property tax levy limit. Mayor Thatcher Kezer III, a lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts Air National Guard, led the successful effort to shoot down the ballot initiative. But he also promised that he would take measures to contain the costs of providing police, fire, public works, and other basic town services.

Kezer calls his attack plan AmesStat - a modified version of the CitiStat management system pioneered in Baltimore in 2000. It uses databases, spreadsheets, and mapping technology to generate key information about the delivery of town services. It is usually a big-city tool.

But in a state broken up into 351 cities and towns, the potential for waste at all levels is significant. By applying the CitiStat method to a small town like Amesbury, Kezer is showing that any community can tighten up its operations and get beyond the guesswork that underlies so many municipal budgets.

Mayors, selectmen, and other municipal officials, as a rule, are big whiners. They complain about the rising costs of healthcare for town employees, special education mandates, cuts in state aid, collective bargaining tactics, off-the-shelf information systems, and scores of other factors that make them the target of angry taxpayers. Often, these complaints are rooted in reality. But few officials take the aggressive steps to control costs or collect the kinds of data that help them to make their case with the public and Legislature.

"We're all drifting toward fiscal failure," warns Kezer. And so long as cities and towns operate like a loose amalgamation of departments, commissions, and boards instead of a cohesive unit, there will be no end to the service cuts, escalating property tax bills, and user fees for school sports and clubs.

Shining a light on problems
Every Thursday afternoon, Kezer and his chief of staff, Kendra Amaral, crank up a borrowed projector and shine some light on a town department or two. On a rotating, biweekly basis, department heads are called upon to defend their share of the town's roughly $50 million annual operating budget.

Recently, it was Amesbury police Chief Michael Cronin and acting fire Chief Jonathan Brickett on the hot seat. Amaral highlights spending for each department by category, including salaries, dispatch, overtime, and buildings and grounds. Amaral homes in on the Fire Department's $130,000 overtime allotment, 86 percent of which has been spent just halfway through the fiscal year. Some of the problem is traced to coverage for a firefighter who was injured in a traffic accident on his way to cover a shift. Kezer makes a note to check on the legal effort to recoup the costs from the at-fault motorist's insurance company.

On the police front, the news starts out better. Chief Cronin reports that his 33-member department incurred no costs for sick leave during a recent two-week period. Larcenies are down, too, over the same period last year. But Cronin also warns that his department's 10-section boiler is on its last legs. Patchwork will see the boiler through the winter. But he also estimates that the town will soon face a $150,000 bill for a new boiler, piping, and the prevailing wages to install it.

Before AmesStat, Cronin says, he probably would have sent a letter to Town Hall informing the mayor of the boiler problem. But now he can update the town's chief executive face-to-face, make his case, and see how his department's capital needs fit into the larger picture. And Kezer says such updates mean that he no longer needs to spend most of his time managing fiscal emergencies.

Options better than begging
Though the hourlong department meetings often start out with a line-by-line analysis of spending, the conversation grows more expansive over time. An analysis of multiple medical calls to the Fire Department, for example, leads to a discussion about whether it would be more cost-effective to purchase a third ambulance. A review of the costs for a police dispatcher's pregnancy leave leads to an update on efforts to build a joint dispatch system for police and fire. Trends also emerge that demand attention from managers, including how sick leave statistics tend to track progress at the collective bargaining table.

About 18 months into the AmesStat initiative, Amaral says it is still too early to prove that the system is a money saver. But she believes that the system will be linked to recent savings in the maintenance budgets for town vehicles. Also on tap, she says, is a plan to use the data to make town government more responsive and transparent to the public.

Kezer, who was reelected in November with about 80 percent of the vote, seems bent on proving to elected officials in small communities that they can respond to tough times by doing more than simply raising property taxes, cutting services, or begging for more state aid.

"I want to be the Southwest Airlines of municipal government," he says, referring to the agile and successful player in a troubled industry. If AmesStat lives up to its billing, elected officials statewide will be under plenty of pressure to straighten up and fly right.

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