This is the second of four articles on candidates for town administrator in Lanesborough; the Board of Selectmen is interviewing eight candidates. The first article can be read here.
Kelli Robbins is the executive secretary for the town of Holland, which is a comparable position to the town administrator job description in Lanesborough.
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Kelli Robbins, the executive secretary in Holland, used a vacation day on Wednesday to prepare for her interview that evening for the Lanesborough town administrator post.
But by 10 a.m., she was back at Holland Town Hall to work. She describes herself as someone who will likely die at her work desk.
"When something needs to be done, it needs to be done regardless of the time it takes," Robbins said.
Her position in Holland, in Hampden County, is comparable to a town administrator when the job descriptions are combined. She got to that point after years in municipal government.
"I got hooked on municipal work back in the early '90s when I became dog officer for my town and it blossomed from there," Robbins said.
She took on more and more roles in government. She became a full-time assessor. She worked as a zoning clerk, in the Parks Department. When she got frustrated with the way the state was managing Chapter 97 land, she went to law school to find a way to change it. She then worked in the attorney general's office in the municipal government division. Then, back in her town, the prior secretary left abruptly and she offered to fill in.
"When you get into municipal work you either get addicted to it or run screaming into the night," Robbins said, and she's been there since.
Robbins said, "my job as town administrator is to protect the town. I work for the residents under the supervision of the Selectmen." When she took office the Holland, she said there were pending lawsuits, the state Department of Environmental Protection was pressuring the town over a degrading landfill, and the finances were so bleak phones were being turned off in departments. But, she said that is all resolved and Holland is in a solid position overall.
"There was a lot of cleaning up that needed to be done," she said.
She said a key component is a communication with the Board of Selectmen and the townspeople. She said she provides as much information as possible to the Board of Selectmen ahead of every meeting, including an "FYI" sheet reporting the history and legality around any issue.
"They are fully prepared for each meeting based on the research I will do," she said.
She said she is a firm believer in rewarding staff for jobs well done, but also isn't afraid to tell them where there are errors -- and even once fired her best friend from a job. She said she treats all employees as equals and holds regular department head meetings to make sure everybody knows what each other are doing, and holds non-mandatory luncheons where no "shop talk" is done, but instead the town's staff gets to know each other on a more personal level.
When it comes to budgets, she said she meets with department heads to determine priorities. In a town with little for a commercial tax base, she said she seeks long-term stability by cutting costs and looking for new ways to finance items. She added that she keeps a long-term history of capital expenses and makes long-term plans for future needs.
"In order to save revenues and generate long-term revenue, I am trying to cut costs," Robbins said.
She has experience in working in with a regional school district and said she's grown a strong relationship with the elementary school in which a high level of school choice revenue is offsetting some of the costs which would otherwise have come from the town's taxpayers.
She said she'd be available to start on July 1 because she still has some matters to tie up in Holland. Plus, she has new selectmen coming in and she wants to make sure they are up to date with the goings-on in town and ready to keep things moving if she leaves.
When Worthington pulled out of the Gateway Regional School District, it threw the remaining six towns for a loop trying to figure out how to manage finances.
Josh Garcia is a municipal services manager with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and immediately got called into to help sort it out. Garcia researched the data. He understood the declining population. And he knew that what they had was not sustainable.
He brought all of the towns together and started to look at cost-sharing agreements, and ways the towns can improve efficiency with the school district. The towns have crafted a more stable agreement to mitigate year-to-year changes, rather than be dependent on whims. And, since then, a five-year sustainability plan was developed.
"They figured out a way to come up with a plan and a dollar amount to spread out over the course of five years. They share the burden," he said.
Garcia has been in and out of many small towns in the Pioneer Valley and says that while each town is unique, many towns are facing similar challenges.
"A lot of what I do is to work with our local governments looking for ways to achieve efficiency," Garcia said. "Most of my work is with smaller towns who don't necessarily have the resources to keep up with their basic services."
Since taking the job with PVPC, his close relationship with town administrations has led him to pursue a career in the field. He says he looks up to a lot of the Pioneer Valley town administrators as mentors in tackling the issues small towns face. One of those is finding ways to share services with others. He said his most recent project is to develop a regional accounting program. He said many small towns have volunteer or part-time employees and that isn't easy to do with the highly regulated municipal finance.
And managing those challenges isn't always easy. Garcia said his toughest decision was recommending that the city of Holyoke eliminate an engine in the Fire Department. The apparatuses are aging and the cost of purchasing new equipment is daunting. But data showed the Fire Department's responses were down compared to years past.
"Any fire chief or any person will tell you the more resources the better. But because of the budget capacity in the city, we had to get creative in how to provide services," Garcia said. "I knew how rocky that road would be politically, but it was a decision we had to make, our responsibility on behalf of the taxpayers."
That decision led to an outcry from parts of the community but he says between that and implementing preventive fire measures, it was the right decision. He developed not only a long-term capital plan for the city but also a long-term vehicle maintenance schedule to get the most out of the apparatuses the city does have.
"There is a lot more preventative solutions being put in place. Old buildings had been knocked down over the years. We were comfortable with the decision of removing the engine without jeopardizing safety," he said.
That decision wasn't his and his alone. Garcia said he works on projects by taking a team approach. And that's how he'd manage in the town of Lanesborough if selected.
"My view at it is, no matter what we're working on, I look at it as a project. We have our resources around us to work and determine the greatest outcome in the final product," Garcia said. He said he'd use social media and email newsletters to make sure the public is knowing what's going on and be in regular communication with the Board of Selectmen.
While the Fire Department story centers on municipal budgets, Garcia lacks experience developing a budget on his own. However, he is now under contract with Blandford and learning firsthand how budget development in small towns involves working with multiple town boards, from the Board of Selectmen to the Finance Committee to the treasurer. He also served on a school board.
In Lanesborough, he'd like to help develop a master plan and find creative ways to reuse the Berkshire Mall. And, he's committed to staying long-term.
"I give 150 percent in everything I do. I try to be the expert in that area. This is a position I want to grow in. I hope to commit five years at a minimum if I am selected," Garcia said.
The Board of Selectmen interview both Garcia and Robbins for the open town administrator position. Paul Sieloff, the town's full-time town administrator who had his position title changed to town manager during the last contract renewal, is retiring after town meeting. He hasn't set a final date, but that June meeting is when he is looking to wrap up his term.
On Monday the Selectmen interviewed Tanya Stepasiuk and Kevin Towle for the job. Robbins and Garcia were followed by Stacy Parsons and Mark Shea, whose interviews will be recapped in another story. On Thursday, the Selectmen are interviewing Christine Dobbert of Florida and George Sutherland of Plainfield. The Selectmen are expected to make a decision in the coming weeks.
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LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Police Chief Timothy Sorrell will be retiring after serving five years in the position.
Sorrell was appointed chief in 2015 after serving in the Police Department for 28 years. He started full time in Lanesborough in 1987 as a patrolman. He served as sergeant for 12 years and was a finalist for the chief's position when the town decided to hire Mark Bashara. He then served as an investigator for twelve years under Bashara before getting the spot spot upon his retirement in 2015.
When asked for comment on Sorrell's departure on Monday, the Board of Selectmen said almost in unison, "he will be missed" and they all wished him luck along with Town Manager Kelli Robbins.
The process of finding his replacement was started immediately as the board wasted no time in forming a search committee.
Last month's 26-6 win over Essex County, N.J., qualified the Berkshire County champions to face some of the top teams in the country in their age group at the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. click for more