Op-ed: A Year in Review of the town of Amherst

This year in town government has been marked by substantial change. Demand for services increased in all eight town departments, and the Amherst Board of Selectmen launched several initiatives to provide more (cost) effective strategic planning, management, operations and accountability.

Management and leadership

Roles and responsibilities were revised. Department heads have full responsibility for running their departments. The town administrator is responsible for the effective running of all operations, and the Selectmen are focused on ensuring that town government is effectively contributing to seven quality-of-life categories: 1. Public Safety 2. Infrastructure/Built Environment 3. Environment/Landscapes 4. Historic Heritage 5. Economic Development 6. Recreation and 7. Education

While education is the primary responsibility of the schools, the town offers educational programs through fire, police, library and recreation. The BOS also strengthened communications with residents through an enhanced website and greater outreach.

Strategic planning

Because effective town governance can only occur with a clear vision of where Amherst is today and where residents want it to be in the years ahead, the BOS launched a first-ever strategic planning process, starting with town departments. Departmental plans addressed six key topic areas:

1. Historical perspective – Past trends, service demands and spending.

2. Environmental scan – Future economic, social, political, technological, demographic changes likely to impact Amherst, which includes peer comparisons.

3. SWOT analysis – Departmental strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

4. Strategic goals – Key proposed outcomes for the next three years or longer.

5. Strategic initiatives – Key initiatives, timing, outcomes and costs.

6. Annual operating plans and budgets – Fiscal 2015 through at least fiscal 2017.

The plans can be found at http://amherstnh.gov/strategic-planning-budget-process-fy15/.

Next year, we will refresh these plans, ask all other town boards, commissions and committees to develop their strategic plans, and engage with the schools to collaborate more effectively.

Annual planning
and budgeting

The strategic planning process served a framework for fiscal 2015 planning and budgeting – a major shift from simply looking at year-over-year budget numbers. The BOS launched a first-ever performance evaluation system for the town administrator and all department heads, which is being extended to all town employees to tie their goals, performance, development and accountability to the town’s goals.

Also this year, under the auspices of the Planning Board, the town re-launched the Capital Improvement Plan to take a six-year view of the major spending initiatives town-wide and to better manage the impact on taxpayers.

Financial management

Town government also strengthened financial management across all municipal activities. We are replacing our antiquated financial management system to better manage budgets and resources in a timely fashion. We completed both the 2012 and 2013 audits well ahead of schedule. The treasurer shifted town funds to several different banks to lower banking fees and increase our rate of return. The tax collector has achieved a 96 percent property tax collection rate, and the Selectmen returned a $200,000 surplus to lower residents’ taxes.

Operational effectiveness

In addition, town departments achieved the following:

? DPW oversaw the successful roof reconstruction and restoration of Town Hall, repaved five roads (3.5 miles), and used the road bond to rebuild five roads (2.5 miles).

? Community Development digitized much of the town’s land records and lowered filing fees, making it easier and less expensive to pull construction permits.

? Fire increased the number of on-call firefighters by 25 percent, from 40 to 50 members.

? Town administration negotiated a three-year contract with the police union, which we hope will receive your support.

? Because we know that low pay levels for our on-call fire fighters and EMTs disadvantage Amherst in attracting and retaining key employees, we created a three-year wage adjustment plan to make us more competitive.

? EMS responded to an 8 percent increase in calls.

? Police increased services to support the Route 101A business district and extended coverage at elementary schools.

? The library saw an increase in circulation to more than 200,000 items and visits to more than 100,000.

? Recreation analyzed the impact of losing Cemetery Fields in 2014 and met the highest demand ever for recreation participation.

Your support is important

The BOS has worked to provide management, leadership and vision that will serve the town well, today and tomorrow. Even with different perspectives, we have worked transparently, cooperatively and respectfully with the shared goal of making Amherst one of the finest towns anywhere in which to reside, raise a family and grow a business.

As always, we welcome your engagement, your ideas and your support.

DWIGHT BREW, chairman,

Amherst Board
of Selectmen