WESTBROOK – Blaming differing management styles and questions about supervision, Westbrook had ended efforts to share a city and school finance department, according to sources from both sides.
The switch back to two separate departments will cost the taxpayers nearly $200,000 in the next fiscal year.
Consolidation of services between the city and schools had been touted for several years as a logical way to save money for taxpayers.
Mayor Colleen Hilton said she was disappointed the effort didn’t work. She sat on the School Committee when the proposal to consolidate was being discussed.
“Why duplicate payroll or accounts payable?” she said. “It’s a little disheartening it couldn’t work. We tried many times, we met many times.”
“We tried very, very hard for two years to make it work. Unfortunately, it didn’t,” said Jerre Bryant, city administrator. “No question, it’s challenging.”
Both the city and the school will need to hire additional staff to create full departments.
“What it comes down to is, I felt we didn’t have sufficient staff hours to do what we needed to do,” said Dean Flanigan, the school department’s director of operations.
According to Alicia Gardiner, who worked as comptroller for both the city and the school, three positions at the city and four positions at the school will be created to make up for the split in the shared department.
The city costs have “gone up significantly,” said Gardiner, now that it must foot the total bill for the three newly created positions, an accountant and two accounting clerks, and Gardiner’s own job as the comptroller, for a net cost of $190,000.
City Hall is already in the midst of combining the city clerk and finance department to compensate for the restructuring. The city clerk will spend half of the time working with Bill Baker, Westbrook’s assistant city administrator for business and community relations, while Gardiner oversees the new positions.
The accountant was previously working at the school 100 percent of her time, while the two accounting clerks were there 50 percent of their time.
Flanagin said the restructuring would allow him and the staff to pay closer attention to school department grants, a suggestion made by the Maine Department of Education.
Flanagin said the school department’s new finance office would have four new positions: a grant accountant, who will be funded through grants at no cost to the taxpayer, an accountant, and two accounting clerks, one of which will work 80 percent.
The proposed budget for the school department’s finance department is $160,000, down from this year’s $197,000. The finance department budget does not include Flanagin’s salary, which is split among the Westbrook Regional Vocational Center, transportation and the facilities accounts.
Superintendent Marc Gousse said there will be a net savings of $73,000 on the school side from the split.
“First and foremost, both as a superintendent and as a taxpayer, it’s all about being fiscally responsible,” Gousse said. “We’re able to do the school finance piece for less money and that’s really where the rubber meets the road.”
According to Bryant, the consolidation of services was started under Stan Sawyer, a former Westbrook superintendent who retired before the consolidation could go in place. Dr. Reza Namin, the superintendent after Sawyer retired, began to implement the consolidation, but he left a year later, leaving the plan in the hands of Gousse.
“It was started as part of a larger picture looking at trying to control expenses,” Bryant said.
Gousse said he was “100 percent committed to shared services, when they make sense.”
The school department still works with the Westbrook Community Center on both adult education and pre-kindergarten services, and with the city custodial and field maintenance staff.
The school and city first began working together with the “low-hanging fruit,” ground maintenance and building care, said Bryant.
“We said,‘Well, that works well and saves money, let’s start looking at more critical areas.’ We went to HR and finance, far more complex areas,” Bryant said. “It’s easier for me to mow your grass and sweep your floor.”
Besides changing superintendents, there were changes in the finance department itself. Flangin was hired as director of operations; Gardiner’s position was shifted to comptroller.
According to Gardiner, in August she was told Flanagin would be working more heavily in finances, and by October a letter was sent by Gousse to the Department of Education saying the finance department was no longer overseen by a shared city-school employee. Gardiner said while the split initially surprised her, staff had been having a hard time figuring out who to report to and adjusting to the differences in management styles.
“It isn’t the end of the world, we don’t hate each other. It’s just unfortunate it’s going to cost more,” Gardiner said.
The human resources department, now shared by both entities, will also see some changes. For the reminder of this fiscal year, three positions, a director, assistant and generalist, will split their time evenly between the city and the school. Beginning next fiscal year, the school will pay for 60 percent of the generalist and director positions, but none of the assistant position.
This will decrease the city’s share by $8,000 and increase the school’s share by $19,000 from this year’s budget of $81,968 to the proposed 2014 budget of $100,995, according to Flanagin.
The two organizations will continue to share trash removal, building and ground maintenance, public services department and police department resource officers, among other items.
While the two departments will continue to use the same trash collector, this year the collector will bill the city and schools directly, while the schools will receive the continued discounted rate for trash collection and disposal.
Hilton said she hopes it’s just a question of timing and that in the future, the school and city will try consolidating their services again.
“We tried to make it work where it could; unfortunately, it’s not the direction the school wanted to go,” she said. “But there are still areas we can collaborate and are collaborating. We’re looking at other departments and surrounding communities. I’m a real proponent for collaborations.”