Borough looking for efficient strategy

The borough plans to hire an outside consulting firm to form a strategic plan to improve Naugatuck's government.

NAUGATUCK — The borough is moving ahead on one of Mayor Robert Mezzo’s major goals for his second term in office — finding efficiencies to improve the way the municipal government functions.

To that end, the Strategic Planning Action for Naugatuck Committee (SPAN) will soon be putting out a request for qualifications (RFQ) looking for consulting firms to conduct a strategic planning study and help Naugatuck come up with a long-term plan for delivering services and lowering costs.

The Joint Boards of Finance and Mayor and Burgesses previously allocated $35,000 to the project in the 2011-12 budget.

Mezzo said he expects to send out a RFQ shortly after the new year, with applicant interviews by the end of January. He said he hopes the study will start in middle to late winter and the length of the study will depend on the company conducting it. The Board of Mayor and Burgesses will have to approve the contract for whatever company the committee selects.

For Mezzo, an unbiased study of the town’s strengths and weaknesses is crucial to Naugatuck’s future viability.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a critical analysis from outside that not only gives us best practices but starts to plan some roadmaps as to how to get to more efficient government,” Mezzo told the Citizen’s News in an interview in May.

Mezzo said strategic planning is a common practice for any business with a multi-million dollar budget, but not common in local government.

“Despite managing multi-million dollar budgets, providing services to thousands of constituents and employing hundreds of workers, local governments often operate by using historical and institutional practices while reacting to outside market forces as they arise,” Mezzo wrote in a recent post on his personal blog.

Mezzo said there’s a perception by elected officials that they may be admitting weakness to seek assistance, Mezzo said. He said some people opposed they study because they think it should be the mayor’s job to know all the answers.

“To think that one person could or should know the best way to do everything is a bit naive,” Mezzo said.

If there’s a way to improve the way the government operates that will positively impact taxpayers, Mezzo said he would like to explore it. He said the benefits of the study far outweigh the costs.

“To think that we do not have room for improvement … is a little bit short-sighted in my opinion,” Mezzo said.

Mezzo said the strategic planning process may produce some recommendations that will make some people uncomfortable, but the alternative is to do nothing.

Mezzo said many of the same issues recur every year and Naugatuck cannot continue doing the same things year after year and expect different results.

“What’s very frustrating is each and every budget year looking at increased needs and a grand list that’s not expanding at a rate equal to inflation,” Mezzo said.

Mezzo said nothing will be off the table as the consulting firm formulates the strategic plan.

Some areas the study might look into are collaboration with the Board of Education, an analysis of social service delivery systems, the borough’s use of technology, how the government communicates with residents, and whether it can make services easier to access.

The study could also look at whether town staffing levels are appropriate and if compensation and benefits are comparable to similar communities, according to Mezzo.

The study might also look into whether a regional approach to aspects of government is feasible to save money. It could also look at the borough’s infrastructure to plan for the future so the borough doesn’t simply react to capital needs, which could cost more in long run, Mezzo said.

“The real constraints are simply what the company would be willing to do with the price that we’re in a position to pay,” Mezzo said.

The borough is already looking into a lot of those issues and has made changes to make the government more fiscally responsible, according to Mezzo.

“We’ve really changed a lot of the ways we do business as a government in the last 10 to 15 years,” Mezzo said.

For example, the borough has fully-funded it pension obligations while converting to defined contribution plans similar to 401(k)s for new hires, created the Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation, maintained a stable fund balance which has resulted in upgrades to the borough’s bond rating, created a human resource department, , and shared common business functions with the school board.

Mezzo said each consulting company has a different methodology. Some conduct interviews. Others rely more on steering committees or focus groups. Whatever company the borough hires will gather information, and analyze what works and what doesn’t work. He said they would take input from department heads, employees, union leaders, and citizens, to gather ideas. The Board of Education has also indicated that it would like to be involved.

“We envision this process involving as many stakeholders in the community as possible,” Mezzo said.

He said the process should be similar to a 2001 study by Mount Auburn Associates that looked at economic development. The result of the 2001 study was the Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation. That firm had 30 people in a steering committee, and did interviews with business leaders and conducted focus groups, Mezzo said.

“The great thing about Mount Auburn is that it brought people from the public and private sector … and created a document that both sides felt willing to trust,” Mezzo said.