As the new Town Council comes to the nine-month mark, the number and scale of the challenges facing the town has come into overwhelming focus:
- Personnel issues require immediate resolution, such as short staffing of the fire department, which has proven to be a problem for morale as well as a large expense, as shifts are made up with overtime.
- Missing officials in the building-and-zoning-related offices leave us vulnerable to errors and with difficulties addressing residents’ concerns.
- The town’s workforce also presents longer-term challenges, like looming expenses for pensions and other post-employment benefits (OPEB), which are massive bills for which we are not adequately prepared.
- The landfill will likely be closing in about a year and a half, and some replacement must be found, necessitating research, community feedback, and significant expense.
- Meanwhile, the Bay Street area continues to languish under a building moratorium, and the problems of its toxic soil must be addressed.
- Town Farm is still without a major piece of recreation equipment.
- The list of lawsuits in which the town faces some risk or liability is long and ranges from matters of employee conduct to zoning enforcement.
- Of course, roads around town are a continual complaint, whether they require the town to undertake the project or to pressure the state to fix roads it owns, and all around, drainage is a natural problem for an area that has transitioned from rural to suburban with a large number of working-class areas.
- And let’s not forget that our taxes are still very high.
If some big issue of which you’re aware isn’t on this list, it’s only because this is a sampling, notably focusing on the municipal side of the ledger, where the council has authority, rather than the schools. With so many challenges hovering over elected officials and town employees, it’s no wonder we always feel like we’re struggling to keep up rather than getting ahead.
Over the last nine months, however, something else has come into focus, too: a general picture of the reasons our town has seemed unable to overcome these hurdles and, therefore, the framework for a solution. Addressing these three underlying deficits will put Tiverton back on track:
- Tiverton has no long-term financial plan. Beginning at the council level and with input and cooperation across town government — municipal and schools — we must put every known challenge on the table and piece them all together so we can make rational decisions going forward. Everything is a trade-off with something else, and without a real and concrete understanding of what needs to be done by when, town government cannot make informed decisions.
- The roles of town officials are not clearly defined (at least in how they are executed). Much of our difficulty maintaining employees in critical positions as well as our political acrimony comes from the same source. Whether we’re talking micromanagement from the Town Council, decisions by employees that follow improper channels, or boards that claim power for themselves (or neglect it), lacking a clear picture of who is responsible for what can result in conflicts and wasted effort.
- Basic and consistent rules of operation haven’t been followed. A clear message from local businesses when Town Council members, town officials, and various volunteers toured their facilities a couple months ago was that the rules they have to follow change depending whom they ask or who holds a particular office at the time. Meanwhile, every time employees have done something so egregious as to deserve to lose their jobs, lawyers advising the town have pointed out that no prior violations were ever actually put in their files. At the same time, the Board of Canvassers has picked and chosen what it would put on ballots. These examples all illustrate the importance of consistency.
Together, these problems have bred distrust in the community and within departments. They bring low morale and high turnover, which contributes to instability in the enforcement of rules and greater difficulty maintaining appropriate roles for officials.
A long-term plan and a renewed sense that decisions should be documented and rules followed (with some flexibility for reasonable discretion, of course) will allow the people of Tiverton to make balanced decisions and to be relieved of the anxiety that comes with uncertainty.