WELLFLEET — With ads posted seeking both a town accountant and a treasurer, Wellfleet’s interim Administrator Charles Sumner has been talking with Eastham officials about a shared two-town finance department.
“There’s a real shortage of municipal finance officials,” Sumner said during the Jan. 11 Wellfleet Select Board meeting. Sumner, interim Town Accountant Lisa Souve, and Assistant Town Administrator Rebecca Roughley met that same day with Eastham Town Administrator Jacqueline Beebe and Finance Director Rich Bienvenue.
“This is the first step, but it’s exciting,” said Sumner. “With housing costs on the Cape — which I don’t need to talk to you about — it’s just going to get increasingly difficult to attract and retain staff.”
After the select board meeting, Sumner told the Independent, “A lot of folks my age are retiring at a very rapid rate, so that’s created some urgency. We’re trying to look at this as a way to have more resiliency, allow for better training of staff, and have a more robust organization.”
While the details are yet to be sorted out and there is no timeline, an existing inter-municipal agreement could allow the two towns to share personnel. The open finance positions are “definitely a possibility” for personnel collaboration, though collaborative roles may eventually expand beyond that department, Sumner said.
Eastham doesn’t have openings in its finance dept., Beebe said, but sharing services and professional expertise would allow the town to have more financial stability and create room for continued growth.
“Often, what happens in a small town if you lose someone, you’re losing continuity,” she said. “You’re losing expertise. You’re losing history. Sharing some of those positions makes sense because it allows us to keep top-tier professionals challenged and happy. It allows new employees to be nurtured and trained.”
While initially the change in organization wouldn’t save money because of start-up costs, “over time the opportunities are really fascinating,” Sumner said.
A state Efficiency and Regionalization Grant of up to $200,000 may be available for the project. “It’s a one-time thing, so we couldn’t get it every year,” Beebe said. Several towns in Western Mass. received grants in 2021 for shared police and regional information technology services, human resources management, and planning services.
If the towns were to collaborate, more and better resources could be found for the same or less money, Beebe said. “That’s the bottom line,” she added. “Eastham has been intentionally building capacity for the past five years. If we want to be prepared to face some of the challenges we have, we need expertise to help us do that, but it costs money. There are things that one small town might not be able to get on its own, but if you take two small towns and put them together, then it’s okay.”
An example is Eastham’s investment in Human Resources Coordinator Laurie Barr. “It has been a huge game-changer for us to recruit for positions quickly, professionally, and make sure they have what they need to be successful,” Beebe said. The cost was steep, she added, “so we would love to be able to share that capacity.”
With a shared operation, towns would be more resilient, said Sumner, so if someone left, “we wouldn’t be in crises all the time.”
Bienvenue, the Eastham finance director, helped Wellfleet set its tax rate in the fall of 2020 after the town accountant was fired, and he provided assistance last spring when the town was scrambling to assemble a budget and town meeting warrant after the town administrator and town accountant both resigned, Sumner said.
History of Regionalization
Regionalization of town services has been on the table for years.
“What usually happens is that people start to talk about it and then realize there’s a lot of work to it,” said Beebe. The work involves meetings and correspondence with the other towns.
“It is going to continue to get harder to attract great candidates to the Outer Cape,” she said. “In order to get those great candidates, it makes sense to start talking about what kind of opportunities we can give them, and they are better opportunities when they’re shared.”
In 2018, the administrators of Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown signed an inter-municipal agreement, which was then approved by the four towns’ select boards. The agreement provided for the sharing of personnel and equipment under certain circumstances.
The problem with that agreement was that a transition in town administrators was happening around that time. “As soon as that was done, David Panagore moved on, then Rae Ann Palmer retired, then Wellfleet transitioned,” said Beebe. “That and Covid really limited that initiative.” Of the four town administrators who signed the agreement, Beebe is the only one still serving four years later.
Though the agreement isn’t widely used or spoken of, it remains in effect. For example, it allowed Truro Health and Conservation Agent Emily Beebe, who needed some geographic information support, to trade hours with Eastham Town Planner Paul Lagg. Eastham also shares Animal Control Officer Desmond Keough with Wellfleet.
Regionalization of health and conservation departments has been discussed for almost two years, said Wellfleet’s Hillary Greenberg-Lemos.
Truro, Wellfleet, and Provincetown are collaborating on a regional fire and medical analysis, paid for by a District Local Technical Assistance grant, managed through the Cape Cod Commission, said Truro Town Manager Darrin Tangeman.