Less is More with Derry Town Council Goal-Setting

The Derry Town Council will focus on three main goals for the rest of the administrative year.

Chairman Mark Osborne called a workshop following the July 1 meeting for the purpose of revisiting the goals the Council had developed last December. They agreed to keep the basic goals and to seek input from the community on their goals.

“We want to revisit the goals, and see if we want to change them or leave the previous goals in place,” he told the Council.

Councilor David Fischer said, “It’s important to see if we can pull together a community survey for feedback in the areas we’re focusing on.”

Fischer called for a closer look at the Master Plan, proposed Exit 4-A, and FY 16 budget. “It’s important to align our goals with the budget and the Master Plan,” he said.

Fischer, a retired school superintendent, said that he had experience with strategic planning and his guidelines were, “Is it do-able? Is it practical? Does it have goals we can measure?  If it’s not measurable, it should not be a top priority.”

Fischer said in his previous experience with school districts, he had learned that to have too many goals, such as 10 or 11, was spreading themselves too thin. “It’s better to focus than spray,” he told the Council. “I’d like to see us have three doable goals.”

An online survey could help the Council define those goals, Fischer said.

The previous goal-setting session was done backwards, Councilor Michael Fairbanks observed. “We sat down with a blank piece of paper. We should make a vision that will outlast every political cycle.”

Councilor Al Dimmock countered, “Our goal-setting should be done by the Council each year, not 10 years out.” He pointed out that Exit 4-A sounded like a good idea 25 years ago, but with what the town knows now, “it is not.”

But Dimmock agreed with Fischer that a survey is a good idea.

Fairbanks warned that the questions have to be simple and understandable.  In one recent survey, 1,000 questionnaires were mailed, and the town got 89 responses.

“You have to make it easy,” he said.

Councilor Joshua Bourdon said a “rule of three” made sense to him. “Residents want to see that we’re making progress,” he said.

Bourdon’s goals were the following: getting a “handle” on union contracts, many of which are expired; improving the town Web site with a marketing thrust; and getting in line with the Master Plan.

“Of course the Master Plan is important,” Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores said. “And I like the idea of the residents being able to chime in.”

Katsakiores pushed for a Senior Center, citing Census Bureau statistics that by 2050, the United States will have 86 million citizens 65 and older. “That’s double 2012 when we had 43 million,” she said.

“We have to start thinking about that,” Katsakiores said.

“How would we pay for it?” Osborne asked.

“The same way we pay for anything else,” Katsakiores said.

Councilor Tom Cardon said he thought a survey was a “great idea.”  He has been looking at Moving Derry Forward, an earlier study, and said he’d found many good ideas.  “We are doing some of the stuff this talked about,” he said.

Osborne said the Council has already begun working on one of the goals, making town government more efficient.  This Council cut $400,000 from the 2015 budget and lowered the town portion of the tax rate from $10.39 per $1,000 to $10.24 per $1,000.

“Almost every resident I’ve ever spoken with has asked us to lower the tax rate,” Osborne said.

However, the numbers are tentative based on the new budget and do not include the school portion, the state school portion, or the county.  The final tax rate will be determined by the Department of Revenue Administration this October.

Fischer agreed that improving the efficiency of town government should be a priority. Improving the appearance of the town should be another, he said, noting, “Today I had the opportunity to walk around downtown for a while.  Certain sections of town are deplorable…a ghetto…they’re awful. We ought to buy those properties and change the way they look, and then maybe lease them.”

Cardon said the Property Maintenance Ordinance Committee is addressing that issue and expects to have a draft ordinance by the end of summer.  The committee, formerly the Anti-Blight Committee, has its next meeting July 21, he said.

The problem is complicated by the fact that many of the distressed properties are owned by absentee landlords, Councilors agreed.

“In other towns,” Dimmock said, “the town will come in and clean it up and send you the bill.”

Osborne said he’d identified two of the three goals, a more efficient town government and lowering the tax rate.  But neither can happen, he said, unless the Council starts working on the budget process earlier than it traditionally has.

Overtime is a concern with this Council and Osborne called for a breakdown of each department’s policies who uses overtime and what are the requirements for using it.

Fischer also asked for a study of town-owned vehicles, excluding police cruisers and fire trucks. “I would like to see how many we have, what their uses are, what are the practices for using them,” he said.

While many Councilors have called for consolidation of some services, Osborne said this deserved more study. “There are good arguments for consolidating, good arguments for keeping things the same,” he said.

There are good things about Derry that aren’t getting out there, Councilors agreed.

Bourdon pressed for improving the Web site to include attractions such as the Robert Frost Farm, Don Ball Park, and the many Conservation properties.

“We have so much to offer, and we don’t market it,” Cardon said.

They also agreed that they needed more data from department heads and more input from the public.

Osborne said, “We can’t lead or govern if we’re in the dark as to what’s out there.”