PROVINCETOWN — January is budget season in town government, and at back-to-back select board meetings on Jan. 24 and 25 Town Manager Alex Morse laid out new plans for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.
The most meaningful changes have to do with staffing. Morse’s proposal adds a new assistant town manager for communications and operations. At the same time, it puts a one-year hold on the town’s new mental health plan, which the select board endorsed last spring.
The assistant town manager for communications would be “the primary conduit for sharing timely, accurate, important, and relevant information to those the town serves,” according to a detailed presentation on the position. The person in this new role would manage incoming requests for information from residents and visitors and publish a regular email update about “notable happenings” and important upcoming events.
The job also entails re-engineering the town’s website, its three competing alert systems, and its various social media pages.
The proposed position is partly paid for in the budget by eliminating the currently vacant project manager role, which also reported directly to the town manager. The salary for that job had been $70,000 until a year ago, when Erin Ellis resigned from the position. The communications role is penciled in at $110,000.
“When I was coming to this position from the outside, it looked like the town manager’s office had an executive assistant and a project manager,” Morse told the select board. “When I got here, I discovered there was just an executive assistant, and the project manager had been put into some other roles. I think this is a better way forward.”
A majority of the select board members voiced support for the new position. “I think it’s going to benefit the town and make it easier for everyone in town hall,” said board member Leslie Sandberg.
The key reason Morse told the select board he’s recommending a one-year pause in some aspects of the town’s five-year mental health plan is that the town is discussing regionalization of public health and conservation duties with Truro and Wellfleet. Morse told the Independent that there’s not a timeline for that conversation, but he’s hoping to have more clarity in the next two months.
The health director position is funded, though it remains vacant for now. A reduction of $140,000 in the proposed public health budget corresponds to the cost of the mental health clinician the town had planned to fund this year as a crisis counselor for town residents.
“We’re recommending that we postpone implementation of some of that programming,” Morse told the select board. “We continue to have conversations with some of our nonprofit partners to see if there are alternative ways to implement it.”
The salary for the clinician was the largest piece of the town’s mental health budget. A second clinician was slated to be hired in the program’s third year.
The clinicians were to be paid by the town but hired and supervised by a nonprofit partner. They would function as crisis counselors, then-Health Director Morgan Clark told the select board last January. The goal was to give town residents access to counselors regardless of their ability to pay and provide care until they could get through the very long wait lists at other mental health care providers.
Select board member Louise Venden said that the health dept.’s mental health plan had been “very well supported on the select board and by the public.”
“I didn’t feel we would be effective and successful” with the program for fiscal 2023, Morse told the select board. “This gives me and the staff a little bit more time to see how we go about implementing that.”
Other new positions in the budget include an administrative assistant in the town’s housing and economic development office, which would cost $50,000 per year and would bring that department up to two people.
The housing specialist “serves as the town’s point person on all community housing plans, proposals, and activities,” according to the town’s budget report, and also provides staff support to four town committees. This would be the first expansion of the housing office since it was created in 2007.
The police dept. is requesting two new full-time officers and four fewer seasonal officers. The shift proceeds from the police reform law passed in 2020 which sets a statewide minimum of 800 hours of training for police officers.
Seasonal or “reserve” officers who used to receive less training and less pay are eliminated under this rule, and towns across Cape Cod have moved to replace their seasonal programs with full-time staff jobs. The two full-time officers would add $130,000 to the budget, while forgoing the four seasonal officers would save $88,000, for a net change of $42,000, excluding benefits.