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Grants aim to aid cities’ efficiency

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2012
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Four area cities will be helping pave the way for municipal governments across the state to deliver their services more efficiently, through a state grant.

Amesbury, Lowell, Somerville, and Woburn, along with Worcester, were the joint recipients of a $373,000 funding award through the state’s new Community Innovation Challenge grant program.

With Lowell serving as the lead community, the five cities will use the money to help develop a “performance management’’ system that all Massachusetts municipalities can use.

Lowell enlisted the four other communities in the grant effort because all five have taken an interest in performance management, which refers to efforts to operate efficiently, according to Michael Herbert, Lowell’s data management analyst.

Amesbury, Lowell, and Somerville all actively employ a data-driven performance management system known as Stat, while Woburn has initiated a pilot Stat program. The four cities and Worcester also belong to The New England StatNet, a group of municipalities that meets quarterly to discuss performance management strategies.

“We are really pleased that they selected us, and we think we can have a positive impact on other communities in Massachusetts in moving toward performance management,’’ Herbert said of the grant.

In this area, Innovation Challenge grants were also awarded to the Manchester Essex Regional School District and to Andover.

Twenty eight projects overall were awarded a combined $4 million through the Community Innovation Challenge grant program, the Patrick administration announced March 16. The program, established as part of this year’s budget, is intended to support regionalization and other initiatives to help local governments become more cost-efficient.

Herbert said that through their $370,000 grant, Lowell and its four partner cities will seek to establish common cost formulas that municipalities could use in comparing what they spend on a particular function with what other communities are spending.

He said currently it is difficult for communities to compare notes on what a particular service costs because they do not always include the same criteria. For example, in calculating the expense of filling a pothole, one community might include the cost of providing benefits to the employees involved, while another might not.

Herbert said enabling cities and towns to make “apples to apples’’ comparisons could facilitate more sharing of information on how best to reduce costs.

Somerville became the first Massachusetts community to adopt a Stat system when it launched SomerStat in 2004. Amesbury established its program, AmesStat in 2006, while Lowell began LowellStat in 2010. Woburn began its pilot program last year.

Through the Stat programs, officials meet regularly to review individual departmental data on everything from overtime usage to vehicle maintenance, sessions that form the basis of discussions on how to improve efficiency.

The initiatives are modeled after the CitiStat program developed by the city of Baltimore in 2000, and similar Stat programs that followed, including those in Buffalo and Providence. CitiStat itself was inspired by the Comstat crime analysis program developed by New York City police in the early 1990s.

Lowell’s program to date has been limited to its public works and inspectional services departments.

But in less than two years it has already generated a combined $1 million for the city, about $800,000 of that from having private contractors take over the job of maintaining the city’s cemeteries, Herbert said.

Amesbury Mayor Thatcher W. Kezer III announced his intention to establish the AmesStat program when he first took office in January 2006, and had it up and running by that July.

“It’s been invaluable,’’ he said. “It’s a means of keeping me informed at a fairly detailed level about what is going on throughout the city’s operations.

Kezer said the grant “is an opportunity for this group of communities to take what we are doing in the Stat area and take it to another level.’’

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said he is honored to be working with the other four communities on the project and grateful for the state funding.

“Cities and towns that embrace the Stat system share a common language and a common vision for making governmental operations more efficient, more productive, and more effective,’’ he said.

The Manchester Essex Regional School District was awarded $109,000 to offer a specialized reading and written language program for fourth and fifth grade students with dyslexia.

The program will serve students from the Manchester Memorial and Essex elementary schools and be housed at the Manchester school.

“We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to provide this level of quality programming in the district for students with significant reading disabilities,’’ said Allison Collins, the district’s student services director.

Andover was awarded $29,967 to develop an electronic community bulletin board system that the Andover Memorial Hall Library will deploy during storms and other emergencies.

Beth Mazin, the town’s library director, said the library was inspired to seek the grant after last year’s Halloween snowstorm, when its building became a refuge for thousands of residents who were without electrical power.

She said with the grant, the library hopes to formalize its role as an informational resource in future emergencies.

The plan is to establish two kiosks equipped with touch screens on which residents can find out the location of shelters and other information, which may also be posted on the library’s website.

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