Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Longmeadow Deserves Better....

Below are links to the latest press releases that were posted this morning (12/28/10) on the Longmeadow town website- www.Longmeadow.org

A couple of comments.... 
  • The press releases for the Holiday Trash Collection and the ATM warrant articles were released for immediate publication by the Town Manager on December 20.   Why does it take 8 days for the notices to be posted?  In addition, the holiday trash collection notice was a bit too late for those who had their trash collected yesterday to find out that there was a Select Board Christmas gift of one additional FREE trash bag.
  • Yesterday, there was a snow emergency declared for the state of Massachusetts but there was no information posted on the town website about town related operations including snowplowing, parking regulations, town hall hours or trash collections.  In the past, town residents could visit the town website for the latest storm related information.
  • The Long Meddowe Days planning meeting notice is interesting.... I guess that there will be an attempt to provide posting of private group notices on the town website as well.
  • A suggestion.... there are a couple of notices that should be removed since the events have passed.  With all of the clutter, it is difficult to find important notices.
All of the above notices would have been posted within 24 hours on the Longmeadow Community Bulletin Board (as they have been posted for the past five years) if they were sent to LongmeadowBiz.  However, the Select Board chairman has notified all town departments that LongmeadowBiz should not be included with the distribution of press releases since it is not considered an "official" media outlet- (whatever that means).

In a past Buzz blog post I have highlighted the website for the town of Amherst as a great benchmark for Longmeadow to emulate but have been criticized by a member of the Town Manager's Website Taskforce because he felt that a simple Wordpress CMS "right out of the box" would work just fine and would be "free" or very low cost to the town.  

Amherst just released a "new look" for their town website designed to be easier for people to use according to an article this past weekend in the Springfield Republican.  I would encourage town residents to take a look... but don't expect Longmeadow's new website to match up very well.

It's been almost six months since the town website was "taken over" by the Rob Aseltine and the Longmeadow Select Board.  Let's hope that the announced unveiling of the new town website scheduled for January 1 will actually happen and be responsive to the needs of Longmeadow residents.

In the meantime, town residents can visit the Longmeadow Community Bulletin Board and the Town Calendar and the rest of the LongmeadowBiz website to stay connected with what's happening in our town.  Also, they should also consider following LongmeadowBiz on Facebook.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Final Comments

I read Alex Grant’s column in last week’s (December 16) edition of the Longmeadow News (click here to read complete column) but was not surprised to learn that his recent FOI request to the Town of Longmeadow for additional documents relating to the series of SBC/ MSBA correspondence and meetings in November 2009 did not reveal any new information nor any insight as to why the MSBA withdrew at the last minute their concerns (build "new" vs. renovation) for Longmeadow's high school project.    
Click here to view all of the documents obtained through this latest FOI request.

From the documents...

There was an important project meeting between the MSBA and the Longmeadow SBC at the MSBA headquarters (at Longmeadow's request) on November 16- two days before the MSBA Board was scheduled to make their decision on the Longmeadow project.  This meeting was viewed as critical for the project with 15 representatives from Longmeadow (including SBC members, project architects, and local politicians) in attendance.  However, it is quite surprising that no meeting minutes or other published notes were taken by either side (or at least not made public through two separate FOI requests).  The only documentation obtained through the latest FOI request were a series of letters including one (11/17/09) from the School Superintendent thanking the MSBA for the opportunity to present Longmeadow’s information and hoping that it was sufficient for a positive recommendation to the MSBA board on the next day (11/18/10).  Click here to view this correspondence.

Meeting minutes for the two SBC meetings that took place in November 2009 (11/05/09 + 11/19/09) revealed very little about the SBC/MSBA project correspondence, "renovation" vs. "build new" concerns or discussions that took place.

Followers of the Buzz blog know that I was a strong supporter of the school building project until April 2010 when it became apparent that the financial impact on increased property taxes for a new school might become a significant hardship for many residents in town and I publicly spoke out in favor of renovation vs. new construction.

From the beginning of the high school building project activities in June 2009 and through early June 2010 I provided significant IT support to the SBC by creating and maintaining the SBC website which helped keep residents updated and informed about the project.  As the project moved forward, there was no question that the vast majority of town residents believed that we needed to do something about the condition of our high school.  What prompted me to write the blog post in early June 2010 that got me fired as town webmaster was that this entire critical interaction between the MSBA and the SBC in November 2009 was virtually hidden from public view until just prior to the town vote in early June.

When town employees or elected or appointed officials believe that the "end result justifies the means" and that hiding critical project issues from public view is acceptable, this becomes an issue of public trust and transparency in our town government.  This controversy was not about a YES or NO position on the high school building project.

Thank you Alex Grant for trying to get the rest of the story…. I guess that we will never know what really happened.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Select Board Holiday Dance

The Longmeadow Buzz blog has been following the actions of the Longmeadow Select Board on Monday nights for quite some time and the proceedings can sometimes be pretty entertaining as well as informative.

The LongmeadowBuzz provides town residents with information that is not normally found in the Springfield Republican or the Longmeadow News.  Not just opinion but background information and facts so that the reader can make up their own mind about the subject.

The LongmeadowBuzz blog is also not intended to be "one man's opinion" so other postings are always welcome as long as the author identifies himself.

The year ahead looks pretty challenging for the Select Board with the following items on the 2011 agenda:
  • another difficult budget year with significant state aid reductions, loss of federal stimulus money
  • new teacher contract negotiations
  • unsettled current contracts for firefighters and police officers
  • new photovoltaic solar energy facility project
  • consolidation of town's  IT department under the auspices of the School Department
    (Hopefully, the transition will be faster and more successful than the 6 year old town wide maintenance dept consolidation)
  • revamping and updating of the town website- http://www.longmeadow.org/
Stay tuned...I will continue to watch and comment on the actions of the Select Board.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

School Building Committee Meeting- 12/16/10

I attended the SBC meeting last Thursday night and as usual there was little public attendance- 2 town residents (including myself).  I attend these meetings because of my interest in knowing first hand how this committee is going to spend my taxpayer dollars. 

In my past SBC meeting notes, I have noted discussions about the likely project bids being much lower than the estimated $78 million… perhaps as low as $60-65 million given the recent bids for other area high school projects. The new Wilbraham-Hampden Regional HS project is expected to cost $65M (see latest projections as of 12/10/10) vs. original $82.2M with forecasted savings to district taxpayers of $3.8M.  With a significantly lower MSBA reimbursement rate Longmeadow could potentially see much greater savings.

Last June Longmeadow voters gave the SBC authority to spend up to $78 million.  Comments by some SBC members at the October 20 meeting (see notes) and at Thursday's meeting have suggested that because there will be a pot of “unspent” project dollars, the committee should consider adding additional project elements that were not part of the original scope.  Discussion at this meeting also hinted at a possible “spending strategy” to install synthetic turf on the stadium field.  Read the meeting notes below for details.

The agenda for this meeting was of particular interest since there was going to be a discussion + a vote on various project “add alternates” + a number of project scope decisions.  Below are my “meeting notes”…

Scope changes were reviewed and voted.
  1. PVC (vs. TPO) was chosen as the preferred roofing material.  There were no cost implications nor performance differences.  A greater US + local installation and life experience with the PVC material gave it the advantage.
  2. Waterless urinals (vs. low flow urinals) were chosen.  There is no cost differential but there are maintenance advantages for the waterless urinals.  There is no odor issue with waterless urinals and Roland Joyal indicated that they have worked well at Chicopee High School. 
  3. Hand “high velocity forced air” driers were chosen over paper towels for most of the bathrooms. There is a $50-60K increase in cost for hand driers but there are reduced maintenance and paper towel cost savings to compensate for the increased cost. 
Bid “add alternates” (AA) were discussed
“Add alternates” are possible project additions to the original scope that are included with the project bid specification package.  A Guaranteed Maximum Price (GMP) is developed from this information but this price does not include these AAs.  If the project has unspent money because the GMP is less than the $78 million, some or all of these AAs can be implemented by the SBC.

Tom Murphy of Joslin Lesser & Associates explained there are two types of add alternates… “trade” and “non-trade”.  In accordance with MGL Chapter 149, the “trade” AAs need to be prioritized and implemented in order.  If a decision is made that the SBC does not want to implement AA #1 then they cannot implement AA #2.  The other type AAs, “non-trade” do not require prioritization and any of them can be implemented by the SBC using unspent project monies.

Here are the add alternates that were discussed.

Trade- Add Alternates
#1: replacement of the natatorium ceramic tile floor + relocation of the diving board, cost = $200K

This 1971 wing renovation item was not included with the original project scope.  The pool area floor has some missing tiles and the current location of diving board presents some safety (?) related issues.

This is an item that does not need to be done at the time of the project and could be deferred and implemented through the town’s capital spending plan. SBC member Roland Joyal voiced his strong support for this item.  Because we are building a “new” showcase school, we need to upgrade this part of the facility as well.

#2: Addition of hydraulic lift for the auditorium orchestra pit, cost = $400K
The current project plans include a manual lift system that takes time and resources to move the platform.  Probable use is about 12 times/ year. This item cannot be incorporated at a later date and needs to included in the project bid specification package.   In addition, OMR needs to complete a design for the bid package.

Superintendent Marie Doyle and LHS principal Larry Berte both favored this item (as did Michael Mucci- LHS music dept chairman) and rated it as a higher priority than item #1.

The SBC decided to defer prioritization of the trade AAs until the next SBC meeting on January 5.

Non- Trade Add Alternates

#3: Under terrace outdoor storage, cost = $150K
This item is an additional outdoor enclosed area for storage of equipment and utilizes space under the arts terrace on back east side of the building.  This addition would include a concrete slab on grade and would be useful for storage of equipment including athletic field items that are currently stored under the stadium bleachers.

There were positive comments by Mike Wrabel and other members of the SBC for inclusion of this item.

#4: Additional site landscaping features, cost ~ $100K
This item is a combination of aesthetic landscaping + function including an outdoor classroom(s), benches, etc.  At this point the details are not fully developed and the quote is only a best guess estimate.  There was some discussion that this would be a great project element for public donations.

#5: Synthetic Turf Practice Fields, cost ~ $600K+
There is no provision in the original project scope for installation of synthetic turf practice fields.  The current athletic practice fields will be damaged or eliminated during construction so existing project plans included installation of two new natural grass fields (see drawing).  This synthetic turf proposal was originally limited to the full size field on Grassy Gutter Road/Bliss Road.  However, just this past week a second synthetic turf practice field (located near the gymnasium) was proposed as a possible add alternate.  The $600K quote does not include lights or the second field installation.  $25K for a detailed design package is required in order to include this add alternate in the bid package.  This money would need to be spent even if the SBC decided not to go forward with this AA.

Co-chair Barkett commented that it was Alex Rotsko, LHS Athletic Director who asked for the second synthetic turf practice field.  However, because neither of the new practice fields was lighted, he was not completely satisfied with the plan.  Mr. Barkett stated that Mr. Rotsko would rather see the SBC support installation of synthetic turf for the stadium field.

At this point a number of SBC members voiced their opposition to expend significant money for new project elements that were outside of the original scope.  Both Ms. Jester and co-chair Swanson voiced concerns about supporting this synthetic turf AA and thought that the SBC should solicit feedback from the community.  In addition, Ms. Jester felt that there was insufficient information available about the subject.  Co-chair Barkett felt that the synthetic turf practice field(s) were not outside the scope and that town residents need not be consulted.

Mr. Joyal who had originally proposed synthetic turf for the stadium field during the October 20 SBC meeting (see meeting notes) felt that the SBC already had the authority to do so.  He also stated that most new high school projects included synthetic turf fields (representatives at the meeting from Gilbane stated that this was not true). Mr. Joyal also stated that “sports is the front porch of your school” meaning that if our new high school is built without a synthetic turf stadium field, our school would be looked at as an inferior facility.

An interesting comment was made by Jeanne Roberts of OMR who reminded the group that funding for many of the new public high schools with synthetic turf cited by Mr. Joyal were funded at a much higher MSBA reimbursement rate than what Longmeadow will be receiving.

Co-chair Barkett stated that the cost of synthetic turf for the stadium field would likely be much greater than $600K since the Americans with Disabilities Act would require a significant upgrade to the high school stadium.  He also believed that installation of synthetic turf for the stadium field was not within the project scope.

Town Manager/SBC member Robin Crosbie proposed that the SBC defer a decision on the synthetic turf until next year and use next year’s Annual Town Meeting to introduce a warrant article to use unspent project monies to install synthetic turf on the stadium field.   This warrant article would only require a simple majority YES vote to pass.

The SBC voted to not include synthetic turf in the project add alternates list but there was a recommendation to form a subcommittee to develop more information on the proposal for later consideration.

Last June Longmeadow voters gave the SBC the authority to build a new high school for $78M (in MSBA terminology, it was a building renovation + new addition, not a new high school).  If the construction climate allows Longmeadow to build this facility for less money, the SBC should try to maximize those savings.  Changes to the project scope to include a hydraulic lift for the auditorium and/ or synthetic turf practice fields are beyond what the average taxpayer voted for last June.

If the town can save $5-10 million on the high school building project, this savings will reduce the taxpayer burden for many years to come.

I would like to see the SBC become more focused upon bringing this project in at the lowest possible price tag- not simply at less than the $78 M. Upgrading the swimming pool area and adding synthetic turf fields should be prioritized with the rest of our town's capital needs. We have many higher priority capital needs in our town.

Don’t forget that our teachers contract comes up for collective bargaining in the next budget cycle for FY2012.

If you are concerned with what you have just read, send an email to:
Robert Barkett-SBC co-chair, rbarkett@longmeadow.org 
Christine Swanson-SBC co-chair, cswanson@longmeadow.org

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Electronic Pickpocket

As technology adds new features to our everyday lives... opportunities for electronic thieves will continue to emerge.   With embedded RFID chip technology being used everywhere, there is a potential for electronic theft of credit card information without your knowledge.

Below is a TV news video clip from station WREG in Memphis, TN highlighting a new way that your credit card information can be stolen.

Click here for additional information on the WREG website regarding this new high technology threat.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Paperless SB meetings... a good idea but

but there are still a couple of technical issues remaining ...

At their last meeting on November 15 chairman Rob Aseltine declared that the Longmeadow Select Board was going to conduct their meetings using new netbook computers which would reduce the large volume of paper that is generated every week.  In addition, he stated that town residents will be able to access SB meeting information via the Internet

An announcement was made that a "new website" had been created by the Select Board to share these documents with town residents.  Here is a link to this new resource.  I've checked this link for the past 3 weeks after the initial announcement was made but no documents as yet have been available to the public. 

I usually watch the bi-weekly SB meetings but being without a copy of the relevant information that is being discussed sometimes makes it very difficult.  I expect that having the pertinent information available will be particularly useful for upcoming budget discussions. I applaud this effort to share information in a timely manner with the public.

However, there still appears to be "some minor glitches" remaining.  Perhaps after the IT consolidation is completed and additional school dept. resources can be utilized, these problems will be worked out faster.

Going paperless and sharing SB meeting materials with town residents via the Internet is a great idea!

I would hope that meeting materials for tomorrow night's SB meeting will be made available before the meeting commences.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

IT Consolidation- Final Comments

At the Select Board meeting on December 6 there will likely be a vote for the consolidation of Longmeadow's town wide IT resources under the auspices of the School Department and School Committee.  There have been a couple of prior posts about this subject (see IT Consolidation- Part I, IT Consolidation- Part II) as well as a SB public hearing on November 15.

At this public hearing there were many comments from town residents both for and against the proposal. Some opposed the IT consolidation because it would require changing the Town Charter while other people objected that the school department should not be burdened with a broadening scope of their primary goals.

Tim Topitizer, a town resident and also a professional in the Information Technologies industry and with some prior involvement with the town's IT needs spoke against the proposed organization change.  Mr. Topitizer asked why there was no strategic plan for the proposed consolidation and that there should be an assessment across all town and school departments looking at present and future needs before a consolidation takes place.  I thought that his comments were right on target!

Below is a short video clip courtesy of LCTV with Mr. Topitizer's comments...

Consolidating the town's IT resources into a single function for a more effective use of our budget monies is a goal that most people agree is a good idea.

However, the town's IT effort has been under resourced for many years.  Town Manager Robin Crosbie has managed to conduct town government business with only one full time IT employee + some occasional support from the School Department.  With this proposed IT consolidation Ms. Crosbie will no longer have IT resources in the town government organization and will have to rely upon the School Superintendent and the new IT department to properly prioritize projects. 

If this IT organization change occurs, I would still expect that the Town Manager to have IT goals and responsibilities even though the required resources will not be direct reports.

Our town has historically been financially limited in most budget areas and this is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. I am not concerned with line item transfers from the new IT dept for other school uses... but I am concerned that the business of our town and its residents may be compromised if the School Department and the School Committee must choose between educating our students (their primary mission) and all of the other IT needs for the town.

Rob Aseltine states that if this IT consolidation is to occur, it cannot be done under Town Government because of a recent Federal ruling by the US Dept of Education which prohibits IT consolidation of school dept resources outside the auspicies of the school dept.  SB member Gold states that East Longmeadow has already completed their IT consolidation under town government.  So it would appear that this issue is not clear.

I would urge the Select Board to defer this vote until a strategic plan and town/school wide assessment of needs is completed.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Food Drive This Weekend

Selectman's Cup Thanksgiving Food Drive
Saturday, Nov. 20th, 10 am to 3 pm
Three Drop off Locations:
-Longmeadow Shops
-East Longmeadow High School
-Heritage Park Pavillion

Donations can also be made on game day.
See video below for additional information.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

IT Consolidation- Part II

Read the first post on this subject- IT Consolidation, Part I

I believe that effective use of computer technology and related systems is one of the important keys to our long term success as a town. Many corporations have successfully navigated recent turbulent economic times through innovative use of technology. Productivity gains leading to lower costs can be achieved through effective deployment of new capital (+ employee training) particularly for computer technology related systems.

Various computer technologies and systems are involved in many aspects of our town government ranging from the Finance Department, Town Clerk and Assessor’s offices, Storrs Library, DPW and Police/ Fire Departments.

Technology is vitally important to the success of the education process in Longmeadow as well.

As a town we do some things well and other things not so well.

The installation of the new water meters with transmitters that allow the town to collect and bill town residents in a much faster and more efficient manner is but one small example of how technology can help the town reduce costs and achieve our long term goals.

Our town wide high speed phone system can effectively inform town residents (or a group of town residents) about an emergency or situation in a very short time and is another good example of what we are doing well.

In contrast to those examples, original property records in the Assessor's Office are 20th century technology at best. If you have needed to review the details of your original property record at Town Hall, you will find that the town still uses paper records. Let’s hope that the piece of paper for your original plot plan is never lost or misplaced. Check with East Longmeadow and other surrounding towns and you will find that they utilize an online GIS system which provides a wealth of information for homeowners and other interested parties. I suspect that there may be significant cost reduction and/or service improvement opportunities in this area.

We need more training for all of our town employees including teachers to effectively utilize the technology resources that we already have and for each town employee to become more productive in the workplace.

The list of technology needs in our town are great…

It is more than new computers, wireless networking and new software for our school system. Police, Fire, Town Hall, Storrs Library all have opportunities and needs that could reduce costs and provide new services that must be considered when allocating our limited financial resources.

Without regular (or annual) Proposition 2½ overrides Longmeadow will always be required to prioritize its needs. Technology equipment and resources will become an ever increasing demand on our limited resources.

Armand Wray, School Committee chair cited a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) between the SC and SB at this week’s SC meeting. It stated that the proposed new IT department’s budget will not be subject to “line item” transfer of funds to other school department needs.

That is not my concern…. The primary mission of the School Superintendent and the Longmeadow SC is the education of our children.   Adding the additional responsibility for the broad scope of the town’s IT needs just doesn’t make sense.

The issue of "student privacy" being used as a reason for consolidating the IT department under the School Department is a "red herring".  The Police and Fire Departments already have rigid security requirements under Homeland Security so the issue is not unique within our town.

From Wikipedia… Information Systems (IS) is an academic/ professional discipline concerned with the strategic, managerial and operational activities involved in the gathering, processing, storing, distributing and use of information, and its associated technologies, in society and organizations.

I recommend that the Longmeadow Select Board consider creation of a new separate department under Town Government called Information Systems and not simply consolidate the current town and school IT efforts under the auspices of the Longmeadow School Department.

There will be a Select Board hearing on Monday, November 15 at 8 PM to hear public comments regarding the consolidation of the school and town IT departments under the School Department. This public hearing is required because a change in the Town Charter is required.

While it would appear that the Aseltine-Barkett-Swanson majority is in favor of this change and this hearing is only a formality, I would urge all concerned residents to attend the meeting and voice their opposition to this town charter change.

Note: If you are interested in adding your comments, simply send them with your name and address to longmeadowbuzz@comcast.net.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Longmeadow Police Investigate Break-ins

My wife and I were taking a walk yesterday afternoon in our neighborhood and learned about a series of robberies that had taken place- something that doesn't happen very often. 

We were concerned when we learned that we knew most of the homeowners and they were elderly.

It was good to see that the robberies were made public this morning with a front page story in the Springfield Republican.  Here is a link to the full story. Alerting all home owners in the affected area as well as the rest of the town is good policy.  Hopefully, a tip from an alert home owner will eventually result in capture of the individual(s) involved with these break-ins.

In the past the town of Longmeadow has been relatively slow in publicizing such events.  Reading the weekly police log in the Longmeadow News or the Daily Log (updated once/ week) on the Longmeadow Police Department website is not an effective way to alert town residents.

We have a high speed automated phone system that can alert all town residents or a specific section of town about a problem or issue within minutes.  It has been used in the past effectively to find missing persons, water main outage, etc. 

Why wasn't it used to alert town residents about these robberies?  

Not everyone gets the Springfield Republican newspaper delivered or watches the local news everyday.  I as a resident in the affected area of town want to be informed.  Perhaps, such a call would have encouraged a town resident to call the police if they spotted a suspicious individual in their neighborhood.

Our Longmeadow Police Department should consider implementing a more rapid reporting of incidents in our town.  Amherst and many other towns in Massachusetts use a system called Crime Reports.  Crime in Amherst is updated by the Police Department on a daily basis.  Below is a sample of how and what is reported...

If you haven't signed up for the automatic town wide phone list, you should plan to do so.... Click here to signupIn a town wide emergency you will be glad that you did!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

IT Consolidation- Part I

The Longmeadow Select Board started its discussion of the consolidation of the Information Technology (IT) organizations of town government and schools at the SB's August 23 goal setting session at the First Church (see my earlier post).  From the outset it appeared that the goal was to re-organize IT services with the School Department assuming complete responsibility for town wide support including people and resources.

A recent survey showed the following town wide IT support areas...
  • serving 50 different departments, boards and committees
  • housed in 13 different buildings
  • with over 700 employees and 3100 students
  • deployment of over 2000 computers, laptops, projectors, printers, etc. that are connected to over 150 servers and network devices
  • using over 100 different applications
The School Dept IT needs are in many cases very different from town government needs with financial and other business related software being extremely important to the successful town government operations. Current town related IT headcount is 1 while the School Dept has ~ 5.7 employees (only 1 FT- 12 months/year employee).  Storrs Library depends upon the town to provide computer IT support and from my involvement this support has been almost non-existent for many years.

One stumbling block to the proposed IT consolidation...
Our 6½ year old Town Charter (Section 6-2) states that the Dept of Finance and Administration is responsible for the town government IT and led by the Finance Director (currently Paul Pasterczyk).

Section 6-2 Department of Finance and Administration
(a) Establishment and Scope - there shall be a department of finance and administration responsible for the fiscal affairs of the town and for the coordination and overall supervision of all business, fiscal, and financial activities of all town agencies, including the school department. The department of finance and administration shall include the functions of accounting, tax and fee collections, treasury management, assessing, purchasing, contracting, information technology, town clerk’s functions, personnel functions and those functions further assigned by the town manager.
(b) The department shall be subject to the direction of a finance director who shall be appointed by, and directly responsible to, the town manager. The finance director shall serve at the pleasure of the town manager and shall be especially fitted by education, training and experience for the duties of the office. The finance director may also serve simultaneously as town accountant; or collector; or treasurer, but may not serve as town accountant and collector simultaneously.

This Charter "stumbling block" apparently has now been resolved by the use of an "administrative code" (as defined in Section 6-1) and outlined in a letter issued by TM Robin Crosbie...
"The Longmeadow Select Board will conduct a hearing on Monday November 15 at 8:00 pm on a proposed re-organization under Section 6-1 of the Charter. The proposed administrative code, submitted by the Town Manager to the Select Board, would consolidate town Information Technology (IT) with school IT, and place IT operations and budget under the school department. Staff and officials representing the town and school have been working since late summer and placed a proposal before the Select Board on November 1. The proposal anticipates that a consolidation will be more effective and efficient in coordinating IT purchases and implementation of new technology. The plan also proposes the formation of a Technology Advisory Board to assist personnel and policy makers in developing a strategic plan and advise them on future needs. The School Committee will be discussing this proposal at its November 8 meeting."

Below are video clips (courtesy of LCTV) from the November 1 SB meeting where the latest IT consolidation discussions took place.

Below is a video clip from the School Committee meeting on November 8 during which IT consolidation was discussed.

Given the role of technology in the operation of both schools and town government, I agree that the Town of Longmeadow has not properly funded nor organized its IT effort.  This is particularly true with regard to town government IT services.

In my next post I will propose an alternative organizational proposal for consideration by the SB.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Longmeadow- EBAY Connection

The Town of Longmeadow has now moved to the Internet as a means to sell surplus equipment and confiscated items that typically in the past has been sold via a public auction at the Police Department garage on a Saturday afternoon.

There is a notice on the http://www.longmeadow.org/ homepage announcing that there is an EBAY AUCTION currently underway by the Town of Longmeadow on EBAY from now until November 16 with a total of 88 items eligible to be purchased. 

The current bids for these items range from $5 for a BMX bike to $4050 for forklift/ bucket loader.  Other items include printers, antique chandeliers, lawn mowers and much more.

Congratulations to Chad Thompson/ Purchasing Coordinator and other town employees who organized this effort.  Hopefully, using EBAY will derive much greater financial results than would have been achieved by a local auction at the LPD garage.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

School Building Committee Meeting- 10/20/10

My primary reason for attending the monthly SBC meetings is to provide timely updates for town residents about the new high school project and how our taxpayer money will be spent. I believe that this activity is particularly important since the SBC has done a very poor job of sharing information with town residents. The last set of minutes posted on the SBC website are dated August 19- a meeting that took place over two months ago. Minutes approved last week for the Sept 16 meeting have not as yet been posted. The SBC does not have televised meetings and in addition, the SBC meeting agenda provides no opportunity for public comments. The short five minute project updates by the SBC co-chairs at Select Board meetings are not adequate.

This project has important financial implications for our town and its taxpayers.  The SBC needs to improve its communication.

At last month’s meeting, I reported in my "meeting notes" that there was an emerging theme voiced by a number of SBC members to consider adding new project elements (called “add alternates) to the original project scope now that it appeared likely that the new high school project was going to cost significantly less than the originally estimated $78 million. Since town voters have already approved a Proposition 2½ “debt exclusion” override up to $78M, the SBC could consider inclusion of new project options (e.g., synthetic turf for practice field, hydraulic stage platform for new auditorium, air conditioning) without the need for any additional voter approval.

At this meeting which was attended by 6 town residents (vs. 2 at the September 16 meeting), co-chairs, Barkett and Swanson went on record to state that the SBC should not consider the $78 million as a blank check and that all changes should be considered very carefully and be “fully vetted”. Town Manager Crosbie went further to state that the SBC should “stay within the scope of the project and not stray from the mission”.

It will be interesting to watch whether or not this guidance is followed through the preparation of the bid specification packages + “add alternatives”.

Below are additional “meeting notes” from last week’s SBC meeting….

  • The high school project is on schedule with early site preparation work for relocation of major utilities (electric, telecommunications, etc.) starting sometime in November. As mentioned in last month’s meeting notes, a major portion of the high school parking lot on Williams Street (~ 40 parking spaces) will be eliminated. A portion of displaced student parking in the Grassy Gutter Road parking lot will be relocated to the Bliss tennis courts parking. There will be designated “student parking only” for 40 of 51 available spaces.
  • As part of this plan a new permanent concrete sidewalk will be constructed on the south side of Bliss Road (from Bliss tennis courts to the high school) to provide a safe pathway for students during the construction period. Some concern was expressed about the displacement of parking for tennis court users.
  • The relocation of the School Department offices to Wolf Swamp Road School is proceeding well with the new office space almost completed. The Superintendent reported that there were no significant dislocations for students/ teachers. Plans are being made to make the move during the holiday break in late December. The School Dept will remain at WS school until the 1971 wing renovation is completed in 2013 prior to the opening of the new high school. This temporary relocation is estimated to cost ~ $50K.
  • There will be a Longmeadow Planning Board review for the new high school project on November 3 . All property abutters have been invited to share concerns and issues. No problems are anticipated.
  • Continuing from last month’s meeting there was a lengthy discussion of project “add alternates”. A FAQ that was prepared for the SBC members about the add alternate process was discussed. Co-chair Swanson stated that this document would be posted on the SBC website (not as yet posted).

    The “add alternate” list seems to be growing. At the last SBC meeting, there was a discussion of “synthetic turf” for the HS practice field. At this meeting, inclusion of a “hydraulic lift” for a platform on the auditorium stage, upgrades to the swimming pool area (diving board and pool deck replacement), consideration of air conditioning for the entire high school (not just the adminstration offices) vs. the originally specified “air displacement” system and alternative roofing systems were discussed as possible "add alternates".
  • Jeanne Roberts (OMR- architect) discussed the need to develop a list of salvagable items could be physically removed from the high school prior to its demolition.  This list needs to be detailed with descriptions + photos + locations if the task is to be successfully completed. This list does not include classroom by classroom inventory that will be transported to the new school but rather items like bathroom partitions, fixtures including toilets, and other items that could be used for other town facilities.  Town Manager Robin Crosbie mentioned that there have been a number of recent upgrades at the high school so these items could have significant value.  At this point there are no town/school resources allocated to this task but Ms. Roberts recommended that it be done sooner rather than later.
  • There will be a SBC meeting on November 10 (time/ location TBD) to discuss the growing list of project “add alternates”. At this meeting there will be a “value engineering” discussion to help identify and prioritize these items. The project bid specification process requires a listing as well as prioritization (for trade related options) for these “add alternates”.
  • An update of the details of plans for the high school project financing was provided.  The SBC financial sub committee is giving strong consideration toward the use of permanent financing (vs. temporary construction loans, interest payment only) at the beginning of the project.  This option is being considered for implementation in December to lock in low interest rates.  The initial bond would be for $25 million with a 30 year bond maturity. Using permanent financing will create a interest + principal repayment in the current FY2011 of ~ $500K which would increase FY11 property taxes by ~ $.22/1000 or $77 for the average homeowner.  There would not be a need for voter approval since it is part of the $78 million Proposition 2½ debt exclusion.   A final decision on financing options will be made by the Select Board in November.
Stay tuned... the next important SBC meeting is scheduled for November 10.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Just Say No to "Syn"

or Synthetic Turf

In a previous post about the Sept 16 School Building Committee meeting I reported that there was a discussion to include the installation of a new synthetic turf practice field as part of the bid package for the new HS project. Currently, the new HS project includes renovation/ repair of the natural grass practice field since it will likely be damaged during the building construction. At the Sept 16 SBC meeting it was pointed out by co-chair Barkett that the best approach would be to include the synthetic turf field as an “add alternate” to the full project bid package.

Note: “Add alternates” are more expensive project alternatives that can be interchanged if there are project monies available to do so.

At this week’s (10/11/10) Longmeadow School Committee meeting there was an agenda item to discuss support of the installation of a synthetic turf practice field as part of the new LHS building project. Prior to this discussion there were visitor comments by Mary Vogel- past chairperson of the SC who voiced her strong opposition to this proposal. Below is a video with her remarks…

Chairman Armand Wray initiated a discussion about SC support for installation of this synthetic turf if the SBC decides to move forward with this project scope modification and include it with the project bid package. It was clear from Mr. Wray’s remarks that the SBC was looking for a clear commitment by the SC (including a future “rubberstamp” approval) to fully support this proposal.

During the discussion it was pointed out that once the new HS building project is completed, safety, maintenance and operation of a new synthetic turf field will become the full responsibility of the SC. Ms. Jester- a newly elected member of the SC and a member of the SBC stated that she could not support the idea since not enough information had been presented. Ms. Bruns and Ms. DeMarco made similar comments. A motion was made and seconded but it was defeated (3-3) with Wray- Brunette-Weigand in support and Bruns- DeMarco- Jester opposed.

Some additional background info...

A synthetic multi-purpose HS practice field was originally proposed for consideration of CPA funds in 2007 by the Longmeadow Youth Sports Council. A considerable amount of effort was spent preparing this proposal but it was ultimately rejected- mostly on the grounds that it did not meet some of the CPA guidelines. The cost for this project at that time was estimated at $825,000. Here is a link to the full CPA project documentation that was submitted.
CPA Project 2007-2

This latest discussion about installation of a synthetic turf practice field has surfaced because it appears that the our new HS project will cost considerably less than the originally estimated $78 million.- possibly as low as $60 million based upon the recent Wilbraham-Hampden Regional HS project bid.

I expect that our SBC committee and its co-chairs to view any project savings as opportunities for our town to resolve some of our other major infrastructure issues- not as a “pot of gold” that could be spent for new HS options that were not part of the original project scope. I’m sure that we will start hearing the SBC “spin” where $825,000 is only 1% of the total project cost and therefore not a large financial impact or burden on taxpayers.

It will be interesting to see what other “add alternates” will be included with new HS bid package and how many of them are actually implemented.

If we try prioritizing the synthetic turf practice field with our other infrastructure needs (e.g., DPW facility, the two middle schools, roads, water/sewer, etc.) I doubt that it would even show up in a top 10 list.

The SBC has a “fidiciary” responsibility to town residents to build the new high school as originally approved by town voters at the lowest possible cost.

If the bid for our new HS with the original scope and materials selection ends up substantially lower than the originally estimated $78 million, the project spending limit should be reduced appropriately.

Given that the SBC has indicated that the town will receive bids in Spring 2011 timeframe, consideration should be given to formally reduce the allowable project expenditures at the Annual Town Meeting in May.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Transparency Game

In case you missed it, here is Alex Grant's “The Transparency Game” that appeared in last week's edition (10/07/10) of the Longmeadow News (with permission of the author and thanks to the Longmeadow News).

If there is one value all candidates to the Select Board and the School Committee pay homage to, it is "transparency." Once elected, however, some town politicians act as if their passion for "transparency," openness, and the free flow of information to the public was rhetorical excess. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that "sunlight is the best disinfectant," but for elected town officials, that sunlight is seen as a distracting, harsh glare that takes their attention away from the important matters they need to discuss.

And so it was recently that the Select Board decided to do an offsite "retreat" at the church across the street from its regular meeting room. The explicit purpose of this change in venue was to rid Board members of those pesky cameras that televise their regular board meetings. Board Chair Robert Aseltine thought the retreat was a dandy idea because there could have a "more relaxed" conversation without the cameras. Aseltine noted that the deliberation process is "affected by being on camera." Board member Robert Barkett said that it was his experience that elected officials "tend to speak differently" offsite and that the conversations are "completely different" without the cameras.

Hearing that, curious minds might have wondered, "so what do they discuss when they're off camera?" Or, are the views expressed at their regular meetings so different from their true beliefs? Having piqued our interest, the pro-retreat Board members of Christine Swanson, Aseltine, and Barkett went on to assure the public that this was no retreat of theirs from transparency or the open meeting law. After all, they are literally unable to bar town residents from attending any board meeting, whether styled as a retreat or not. They even went so far as to say that the retreat was really just as open, especially since they would have to post minutes and folks could attend in person (albeit when many are out of town on vacation).

Got that? The retreat, according to the Select Board, was essential to create the privacy necessary to have the candid and "completely different" conversations they needed to have. But, the retreat was also just as open and transparent as any other meeting, even though virtually nobody would ever see it.

Editor's note: There is a web video and meeting "notes" for this August 23 meeting and it was posted on LongmeadowBuzz.  See Select Board Sets FY12 Goals.

At the August 23 retreat, certain Board members voiced support for subcommittees, a structure unfamiliar to the Select Board but very much a part of how the School Committee does business. And now, it seems all but assured that there will be a Finance Subcommittee and an Operations Subcommittee. Board members Mark Gold and Paul Santaniello are opposed.

Most town residents probably view the legislative process of the Select Board as inside baseball, unworthy of attention. However, this subcommittee idea will diminish what the public knows about the budget and other vital town issues. If the School Committee subcommittees are any guide, they will not be televised, their meetings will be mostly unpublicized, and their meeting minutes (if any are kept) will not be readily available. The subcommittees, in turn, will present their findings and recommendations at the regular meetings, and those will be accepted without much discussion.

I wrote about subcommittees last year, and I noted that in July 2009, there had been no meeting minutes of the School's Financial subcommittee posted online since 2007. Those minutes, are now available, but there is nothing posted for the bevy of other School subcommittees. There are five such subcommittees this year, but there are no meeting minutes posted for any of them.

Recently, the School Building Committee just went four months without posting its meeting minutes, and the last posted Select Board meeting minutes are from over three months ago. Meanwhile, Jim Moran, the erstwhile town webmaster who still endeavors to provide information about town events on his own websites, has been refused access to the town's press releases.

All of this points to a trend toward keeping town business more obscure to ordinary voters. This penchant for privacy stems from the belief on the part of some town politicians that our local government would be run more intelligently if insulated from the prying eyes of the public. And make no mistake, by doing the minimum and grudgingly providing information about their affairs online, the Select Board, or any other board, can drastically reduce the amount of attention it receives. The only way to make sure town government is truly open is by holding politicians accountable at the ballot box for their pledges of transparency. Otherwise, the doublespeak will just go on.

Alex J. Grant

Monday, October 11, 2010

Roadmap to a New Website

The Town of Longmeadow Website Task Force is seeking
your input on how to improve the website and other electronic
services offered by the town.  Please click on SURVEY.

This is the message currently being displayed on the homepage at http://www.longmeadow.org/ .

Because I strongly believe that our town needs effective web based communication, I have written two previous articles on technology options for a revamped town website to help provide some direction for the Town Manager's Task Force.

Cost of Technology
Cost of Technology- Part II

After I posted these articles, I have received a series of critical comments from Alan Dove, a town resident and member of Town Manager’s Website Taskforce stating that I have greatly overstated the difficulty and cost of both the development and maintenance aspects for a new town website.  Below are a few excerpts from his comments...

“As for the "Virtual Town Hall" option, it's a blatant ripoff. Nobody with a clue pays a dime for a content-management system these days. Indeed, the town's current technology service already offers professional installation and maintenance of several open source CMSs, so that should add no cost.”

”You also vastly overstate the need for training the people who will post content. A modern CMS makes posting and editing as easy as putting a comment on a blog page. Anyone who can use a computer can do it.”

“There's no technical reason a completely renovated web site should cost more than a few hundred dollars a year.”

I have recently surveyed a number of town websites in our region and found that the Amherst’s town website http://www.amherstma.gov/  provides an excellent benchmark for our town to emulate. Amherst has been commended numerous times in the recent past for their excellent delivery of web based services through their town website.

To obtain more information about the Amherst’s town website development, I contacted Kristopher Pacunas, Director of Information Technology for the Town of Amherst and asked him a series of questions. His answers shown below were quite helpful in gaining a better understanding of what it takes to create and operate an effective town government website.
  1. From the link on your website, it appears that www.amherstma.org is using a document management system developed by CivicPlus®. Is that correct?
    [Kris] Yes it is CivicPlus®
    Note: CivicPlus® develops comprehensive websites for cities and towns with over 700 completed projects servicing 26 million people. Their website is: http://www.civicplus.com/
  2. How much did the startup phase including the design of the document management system template and required Amherst employee training cost the town?
    [Kris] We did three websites all at once (http://www.amherstma.gov/, http://www.amherstpd.org/  and http://www.lsse.org/  ) and the total initial cost for setup was $25,000.
  3. How long did it take to get the new website online?
    [Kris] 3 Months
  4. How many town employees are actively involved with the website? Do you have any volunteers to help maintain and update the website?
    [Kris] 25+ and yes. The granular security abilities allow us to delegate the upkeep responsibilities to many departments and staff.
  5. When major navigation changes (new webpages, menu items, forms, etc.) are needed, does CivicPlus® take care of the required html development and website implementation?
    [Kris] No and yes. CivicPlus® will walk you through every step.
  6. Do you have an estimate of how many hours (weekly/ annually) are required to maintain the Amherst website?
    [Kris] This is part of each department's daily routines but it significantly less time overall that what it would take without a web-based content management system.
  7. Is there an annual charge by CivicPlus® to host the Amherst websites and provide you with any needed technical support (e.g., webpage/form modifications)?
    [Kris] The Town of Amherst pays $6,000 annually for maintenance for the three sites and all modules. I suspect your annual cost would be significantly less. The form creation is also built-in to the content management system so we create our own forms regularly at no cost. In fact there are no additional costs over the annual maintenance which includes hosting.
  8. Any additional words of advice?
    [Kris] I’ve done a lot of research and spent a lot of time looking at every system on the market and after two years of use there is basically no comparison to CivicPlus®. Let me know if I can be of more help, good luck!
Amherst Town Government

Leisure Services and Supplemental Education
ala Longmeadow Parks/ Recreation

Amherst Police Department

As Kris mentioned in one of his answers, all three of the above websites were included with their town government website development and have a single "look and feel".  The Jones Library in Amherst has a separate website (www.joneslibrary.org/) with a different look and feel and is connected via an "external" link on the Amherst town government website.

The Longmeadow Parks and Recreation Dept has its own website (www.lprd.net).  Perhaps the LPRD's website could be incorporated into Longmeadow's new town website and the annual maintenance savings used to fund it.

Browsing through Amherst's town website I found some features that should be considered for the new Longmeadow website.
I would recommend that Longmeadow residents visit Amherst’s town websites before they fill out the survey so that they can provide some useful information to the Town Managers Website TaskForce.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Longmeadow Town Manager and School Superintendent Contracts

As I mentioned in my previous post, the current negotiated employment contracts for the Town Manager and School Superintendent were not found at Storrs Library but I was able to obtain copies via a request to Town Hall. Both contracts are public documents.

Here are links to these contracts…

Town Manager- dated March 25, 2009
  • Current contract was signed on 3/25/09 is effective until 6/30/12. 
  • Initial salary of $99,031/ year through 6/30/10. Merit increases and other compensation may be awarded at the discretion of the Select Board.
    (There were no merit or other compensation increases for FY11.)
  • Includes 4 weeks vacation, 12 days of sick leave (which can be accumulated up to a max of 150 days). Also included are 3 personal days/year (no carryover or accumulation) and 12 paid holidays.
  • There is a car allowance of $200/ month, $2500/ year tax deferred compensation, up to $2500 for professional development and payment of dues for professional memberships.
School Superintendent- dated March 30, 2010
  • This new contract is for three years effective 7/01/10 with an initial starting salary of $155,000/year.
  • Evaluation every year (June 30) with the potential of an annual increase based upon performance.
  • 5 weeks vacation (carryover 5 days/ year), 15 sick days (carryover max of 45 days), 12 paid holidays, 2 personal days, 3 bereavement days per year.
  • Monthly expenses for a cell phone/ Blackberry electronic device are paid.

According to the above contract, the School Superintendent’s salary was finalized on March 30 yet the FY2011 school department budget provided to town voters at the Annual Town Meeting showed a line item of $135,000 even though the actual contract salary at the time was $155,000. This is a 25.4% increase over the $123,000 paid to our recently retired school superintendent.

Why were town voters mislead by the School Committee as to new superintendent’s salary particularly given a budget that was achieved in part with a new teachers contract having a 0.0% COLA?

Comparison of school superintendent salaries in East Longmeadow ($130,000- FY11) and Wilbraham-Hampden Regional School District ($135,000- FY10) suggests that $135,000 was a competitive salary for our region and towns with similar characteristics.

Based upon the current salary structure for Longmeadow teachers, our new superintendent is getting paid more than twice the highest paid teacher in the school system.

Our new superintendent is also being paid at a salary that is 57% higher than our current Town Manager.

Town employee salaries are a very large part of our town budget. The current Longmeadow teacher contracts expire next summer so teacher salaries including COLAs (as well as other town employees) will be a significant factor in achieving a balanced budget for FY2012. Police and fire fighters are still in collective bargaining for a new contract.

It should be an interesting upcoming budget process.

P.S. The TM and School Superintendent's contracts should be included with the other contracts available at Storrs Library.