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Too many assistants, not enough leadership

December 13, 2011

A few years ago, the Walpole School Department eliminated all Assistant Principals at all four elementary schools. Since then, the sky has not fallen and our elementary schools are performing exceptionally well. It makes you wonder why we ever had Assistant Principals in the first place.

This just goes to show that eliminating “Assistant” positions can be very good ways to cut the budget. Walpole’s elementary school principals are making do with less, but so is everyone else in this economy. Principals, secretaries, and teachers work together to make up for the lost position, and the schools still run smoothly. The staff learns to adapt. I would argue that eliminating these positions has not had very much negative impact on our schools and has in fact freed up valuable resources to keep teachers employed.

Last year, the Town of Walpole eliminated its Purchasing Coordinator because of less purchasing being done. The Assistant Town Administrator now carries out this position’s functions. Yet the sky has not fallen because this position was eliminated. I would be a strong advocate of keeping this position unfunded for the long-term, as it is apparently unneeded and shouldn’t be needed because the town shouldn’t be purchasing very much anyway. If the town isn’t seeking bids and buying large items very much in this economy, we shouldn’t be doing it in even a good economy. Right now, most, if not all, residents can say they have not been personally affected by the loss of the Purchasing Coordinator. Our town is still running smoothly as if nothing changed and I have noticed no difference in town operations. It makes you wonder why we ever wasted money on this position in the first place.

I wonder what other positions can be cut at Town Hall that can be taken over by someone else in the normal course of their duties. For example, earlier this year when the town was replacing its part-time Town Planner, 180 suggested the town consolidate that position with the Economic Development Officer which so many town officials so vehemently defend. Nope. The idea was ignored. Now we have two different people at Town Hall doing very similar duties that most other towns have already consolidated. Most other towns have their Planners do economic development work – but not Walpole.

In theory, anything at Town Hall can be cut and consolidated.

According to my quick count, the town of Walpole currently has at least 19 people with “Assistant,” “Secretary,” or “Principal Clerk” in their title working on the municipal side of the budget. It is particularly hilarious when a Secretary gets upgraded to “Executive Secretary” or “Administrative Assistant” to make it sound as if their job is more important. The term “Principal” is also put in front of “Clerk” to imply a sense of importance.

I think a good starting point for true budget efficiencies would be to start cutting some of these positions. The schools have shown that when you eliminate these types of positions, the people who remain will adapt to making do with less – but they will always put up a big fuss when you first propose it because they can’t imagine having to deal with the pressure.

The town’s policy seems to be that we can’t have any of our town employees doing more work. Everyone is apparently already busy. The oft-repeated talking point has been that Town Hall is currently overworked and any more cuts will affect their service to the public.

I say in response: Town employees should deal with it. Welcome to the recession, which Town Hall has so far been immune to. Town employees have been getting raises and longevity pay, and their raises are not tied to exemplary performance, as in the private sector. Town employees have been doing quite well when compared to the rest of us. It’s time they share in some sacrifices. Everyone in the private sector is constantly learning to make do with less. Everyone is overworked. Plenty of people are working overtime with no pay.

Read John Stossel’s take on this in a previous blog post here. He lays it out very clearly: government employees don’t know how to take the pressure of cuts, so when an “Assistant” is proposed for elimination, they scream about how they’ll have to do more paperwork or other tasks which will affect their ability to do their job. But once the “Assistant” position is cut, they will slowly learn how to adjust and they will have enough time to do everything they need to do. Government must learn to face the pressure that private sector employees face all the time.

If government employees would like to see what it means to do more with less in the private sector, they should take a field trip to The Walpole Times. The Times lost their Sports Editor a few months ago, and has gone from having four reporters, a photographer, and a news editor back in 2006 to having just one reporter and one news editor covering an entire town of 24,000 today. Yet the Times is still distributed on time – an amazing feat considering the significant reduction in staff. The staff isn’t getting overtime and they haven’t gotten raises in years. But the paper must go out every week because readers and advertisers depend on it, so the staff does what they can to work together to publish the newspaper.

If Town Hall faced the same kind of pressure the Times faces on a daily basis, the town would be in much better shape financially.

Unfortunately, because town government holds a monopoly on the functions they do, and has no competition like the business world does, town officials will sometimes deliberately make sure that whatever cuts they make in staff are as painful as possible to make sure taxpayers feel the burn about not wanting to pay more. Town employees will work slower than usual using the excuse that they are short-handed in the office. That way, next time the town is given the opportunity to hike taxes they will remind voters that they need to replace the positions that were lost or else taxpayers will be forced to wait longer for town services. In that case, it’s a lose-lose for taxpayers either way, but for now the town should focus on reducing the number of unnecessary positions.

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