Last year the Mayor hired the Matrix Consulting Group, a nationwide consulting group serving municipalities, to look at our Department of Public Works and do an analytical study of its organization and effectiveness. They produced a 133 page study dated January 2016. No grade was given, not a passing or failing rating, but they tell us that there is room for improvement. The report lays bare the duplicity of Northampton’s city government, which produced fake DPW budgets under Mayor Claire Higgins, and DPW director Ned Huntley. The mechanism for raising money for one thing and then spending it for something else may have been originated by the late David Musante when he managed the city’s finances for Claire. The city, if I remember rightly, conducted its own appraisal of the property value of the about-to-be closed landfill, and worked it into the budget as part of a so-called PILOT program. Long ago there were persistent rumors that cash from our landfill was supporting shortfalls in funding our schools and other human service programs. I believe that it was happening, and it might have been against the laws that set up enterprise funds. Money raised by enterprise funds is supposed to be used for these DPW projects. But the Mayor was a passionate advocate for human services and I guess she felt the end justified the means. And Ned went along with her. Without the mayor’s support, his dream of a new DPW building would be dead as a doornail.
The Board of Public Works is supposed to file yearly reports on their budget and activities. Reports like small towns file routinely for town meeting. Our BPW didn’t make reports to the city council or the public. On page 40 of this study is a table we should have had a long time ago. Money budgeted for programs and money actually spent. For many years they have been setting water and sewer rates based on phony budgets. They had line items in there for preventative maintenance, new equipment, space costs, etc that were consistently inflated. On page 40 consultants have budgets for the enterprise funds for three years, 2012, 2013, and 2014.
In 2012, the DPW budgeted for operations $9,577,532. They only spent 8,210. 033. This meant that the Mayor Higgins had more than $1.3 million that would become so-called “free cash.” The vast majority of this came from the enterprise funds. In 2013 the surplus revenue was more than $1.4 million. In 2014, more than $840,000.00. 2015 was the first year that the Mayor and the Finance Director had control over Public Works finances. This year, the consultant said that the surplus amount had shrunken, but did not provide figures. The study said, “the Department should nonetheless take proactive steps to ensure that the previous pattern of overestimation does not recur.”
The consultants also said, “With such large volumes of unspent funds, this may be inflating the rates unnecessarily. These unspent funds do revert back to free cash, which may be spent on capital projects.” This enabled the city to evade the limitations of proposition two and a half, which forced the city to go to the voters to raise new revenues from taxes. Taxes were frozen by two and a half, but rates for services could rise freely.
Over the years, the ratepayers have been seeing big boosts in their bills, but there were no big projects underway to improve enterprise-funded services. The water department building is practically falling down and the front and side doors have been bolted for many years. The average age of DPW trucks and heavy equipment is way over the norm: The heavy vans and pickup trucks average 15.2 years in age. Heavier equipment is also ancient. The average economic life of the vans and pickup trucks is typically 7 to 8 years. Because the guys repaint them and keep them looking good doesn’t mean they don’t break down more often. And the old garage where the maintenance is done was built for our trolley-car system.
I thought of all the dog and pony shows over the last three years where glossy materials from CDM were distributed on the need for rate increases for the storm water system and aging flood control dike.. Yes, of course we have to appropriate money for these needs, but we should be able to look the ratepayer in the eye and tell him that the money he will be paying every year is being spent properly.
The last time I saw the late Ned Huntley was at a design charrette of sorts about the cemetery redesign. It was held down at the Senior Center and was well attended. He was there physically. He stood there, pale and expressionless, letting other people do the talking. This study dealt a fatal blow to his career.
While the Matrix Consulting Group praised certain aspects of the department’s operation, it found major areas where there is a need for improvement. It is an old-fashioned department with myriad responsibilities including supplying us with potable water and water for fire protection, with running a waste treatment operation that keeps us in compliance with EPA regulations and keeps the Connecticut River clean. The city keeps expanding the department’s responsibilities without expanding staffing or maintaining its physical plant. Its ability to dun us for services through the enterprise funds makes the department into something of a cash cow that is milked aggressively for other city needs. Powerful lobbying by special interests has lead to the construction of new playing fields and Pulaski Park without adding appropriate amounts of DPW staff to keep them mowed, trimmed and fertilized. The Parks and Cemetery department only has eight full time employees, supplemented by seven part time seasonal employees. They are responsible for maintaining 16 baseball and softball fields, 9 soccer and lacrosse fields, and 19 street parks covering at total of 145 developed acres. And three cemeteries.
The consultants rated the condition of some fields as “poor” due to inadequate edging, trimming and weed control. Even the brand-new Florence Fields complex (2015) was weedy. The expanded and remodeled Pulaski Park looks like it will need quite a bit of work to maintain its drainage. The new DPW head will have her work cut out for her.