Acting manager wears many hats

If Crystal Dionne has to requisition a new piece of furniture for her office, chances are it will be a hat rack. As Bedford’s director of finance and personnel, tax collector and acting town manager, she needs somewhere to put the many hats she wears throughout the day as she switches back and forth between her various positions.

In between hats, Dionne took some time to share how she juggles so many responsibilities, how tax money is spent and how the search for a new town manager is progressing, plus the financial seal of approval that sets Bedford apart from every other municipality in New Hampshire.

Here’s part of the conversation:

Q: What positions do you hold within the town? What are the main responsibilities of each position, and how long have you held them?

A: I have worked for the town as director of finance and personnel and tax collector since 2000. Currently, I am also serving in an appointed capacity as acting town manager and have been in that role since November 2011.

As the director of finance and personnel, I am responsible for overseeing all financial management and budgeting functions of the town, as well as all human resource functions, including collective bargaining, for the town’s full-time, part-time and seasonal employees. The department has a staff of 2.5 full-time equivalent employees to assist with these functions, including all billing, payables and payroll for every town department.

As tax collector, I am responsible for all billing functions, tax rate setting, lien and deed processing for property taxes, as well as overseeing the motor vehicle registration functions as the town’s “municipal agent” for the state DMV. The tax/motor vehicle department consists of 2.5 full-time equivalent employees who process primarily tax and motor vehicle transactions daily.

As acting town manager, I am responsible for the day-to-day management of the town as well as providing the necessary information to the Bedford Town Council to carry out their functions. The manager is also responsible for ongoing strategic planning to deliver the town’s core services within the financial resources provided.

Q: Which of these positions tends to be the most time-consuming?

A: That is a tough one, because it truly depends on the time of year, and in some cases, what the day brings! During budget time and year end, clearly the finance role is most time-consuming. However, that changes during tax billing time. On any given day, I can be pulled in a variety of directions to handle a town manager responsibility, deal with a personnel-related issue, a public works or developer issue, handle a right-to-know request, a legal inquiry, a taxpayer issue, and the list goes on and on.

Q: How do you manage to balance so many responsibilities at once?

A: I am able to manage with the help of a completely capable and very talented staff of department heads. I cannot say enough about these individuals, who are quite literally the best in their fields.

I’m not certain that I would call my time management skills “tricks,” but I find myself having to use priority lists and work with deadlines much more frequently these days, as well as working whenever and wherever I can find time. Most often, my days at the office are monopolized with whatever may come in on a given day. Therefore, I find my evenings most productive for tasks related to finance, where I can focus essentially uninterrupted (of course, after the kids are in bed!).

Although I don’t like to admit it, I am completely reliant upon my phone for email, text, etc. I find that taking a few minutes to respond to a message, no matter where I am, helps to keep the workflow moving as opposed to waiting until I physically get back into the office. It sometimes annoys my husband, but it is a necessary evil these days!

Q: How is the search for a new town manager progressing? Does it look as though the position may be filled soon?

A: As you know, the current search is being handled by an outside consultant. At this time, it has been reported that the consultant is filtering through the qualified applicants and will present a subset of the most qualified to the Town Council within a few weeks. Interviews will be held at the end of July, and hopefully shortly thereafter, the Town Council will begin negotiating with their selected candidate.

Q: How are taxes typically spent in Bedford? What items in the budget generally require the most money?

A: Taxes (along with the town’s other revenue sources) are spent in accordance with the budget appropriations approved by the voters each March. As you can imagine, the town’s public safety services, including police, fire and public works, require the most funding (approximately 56 percent) when we look at the budget in terms of departments. If we look at the budget in terms of spending categories, the cost of personal services (employees) requires the most funding (approximately 55 percent). The remainder of our budget is primarily capital outlay (i.e., equipment purchases), operating (i.e., consumables, utilities, etc.) and repayment of bonded debt.

Q: What kind of emergency expenditures have cropped up over the years, and how does the town plan for that?

A: We have been quite fortunate to not have emergency expenditures of any significant amount come to the forefront in the last several years. We spend a fair amount of time analyzing our budgets and planning ahead for major purchases; therefore, we have placed ourselves in a desirable position to be able to respond quickly in the case of emergency. Also, part of our planning has been our ongoing commitment to ensure that the town’s fund balance remains healthy. This fund balance, which is essentially the town’s equity, has been instrumental in ensuring that the town does not have to issue tax anticipation notes, as well as ensuring that the town’s cash flow management and position is strong. Finally, each year through the budgetary process, we fund a nominal amount in an account termed “unallocated reserve,” This account, which represents 0.002 percent of the budget, can be used for any unforeseen emergencies as deemed necessary by the Town Council and town manager.

Q: How is Bedford’s financial health overall?

A: Bedford’s overall financial health is incredibly strong. One of the primary indicators of a community’s fiscal health is its bond rating. In October 2011, the town received an upgraded bonded rating of Aaa by Moody’s Investor Services. This is the highest rating a municipality can receive, and it is the only rating of its kind in New Hampshire. The rating agency cited Bedford’s strong financial management, commitment to balanced budgeting, overall community wealth and growth in the tax base as a few factors in determining this rating.

The town’s conservative approach to budgeting over the last few years has helped maintain our strong financial position. It should be noted, however, that there is a balance between healthy finances and a healthy operation. In order for our operation to remain healthy for the foreseeable future, we must allocate the necessary resources to carry out our core functions to the service level expected by the residents of this community.

Q: Why are property taxes collected twice a year in Bedford instead of once annually?

A: This is a provision of New Hampshire State Statute Chapter 80 with regard to the collection of taxes within a community. The town adopted such provisions to allow for semiannual billing and collection of taxes; therefore, we continue to adhere to such selection by the town.

Q: How is Bedford’s property tax rate calculated? Has it changed significantly in recent years?

A: The property tax rate is comprised of four components: the town (i.e., municipal portion), the local school, state education tax and county tax. The local school and state education portions of the rate are calculated based upon the budget submitted by the Bedford School District. Likewise, the town and county taxes are also calculated based upon the budgets submitted. Each budget contains the amount of funding needed in a given year for operations and the amount of anticipated revenue (from sources other than taxes). Those figures are used to calculate the amount of revenue that must be raised through taxation. Once that figure is established, it is applied to the town’s assessed taxable valuation to derive the rate itself.

The rate changes from year to year as our community grows, demand for services grows and the cost of those services increase. I would suspect that any change would be viewed by the taxpayer as significant; however, it stands to reason that taxes increase annually just as our own personal expenses increase.

Q: How do Bedford’s property taxes compare to those of other New Hampshire towns?

A: Bedford’s property tax rate is quite low compared to some surrounding communities. Each year, the Department of Revenue Administration ranks every state municipal tax rate based upon the full value of assessments. In 2011, Bedford ranked 97th out of 224. The biggest difference in comparison to other New Hampshire towns is the value of property here in Bedford. While our rate may be low, the value of a home in Bedford is significantly higher in some cases. A home of greater value will have a higher property tax bill, as the rate is applied against the assessed valuation to determine the tax dollars.

Q: Why is the town only able to issue certain types of license plates and other plates have to be obtained through the DMV?

A: The town is required to abide by the laws governing motor vehicle registration as well as the administrative rules of the DMV. It is the state that sets which plates we are allowed to issue and which ones must be obtained through the DMV directly.

Q: How else are you involved in the Bedford community?

A: With the number of hats that I am currently wearing for the town, it is a bit difficult to find the time to get out and involved in the community. I have two young children who are involved in a variety of their own activities that keep every free moment occupied.

I do enjoy bringing my children to events such as Old Town Day and the Fire Department open houses. I also have presented to the Bedford Rotary Club and am a regular at the annual Firemen’s Ball. Events such as those are a great opportunity to meet with residents of community in a social setting and get to know them a bit more.