EDITORIAL: Was Dhillon wrong?
It's been nearly two years since the Thursday Night Massacre, when the lives of six families were turned upside down by the Antrim Township Board of Supervisors. On Aug. 21, 2008, four supervisors fired six employees at the recommendation of Dhillon Management Services, a consulting agency hired to evaluate township operations. Matt Dhillon, from Fullerton, Calif. wrote in his 62-page final report that township residents would benefit financially and with more efficient services if his suggestions were followed.
He stated the report would be painful. "Sometimes observations made by an objective third party can be difficult to endure since we all try to do our best at our jobs, but these observations are necessary to achieve improvement and growth," he wrote. He defined $517,000 in annual savings plus a one-time cost of $42,500 if his findings were accepted.
And so Curtis Myers, Fred Young III, Rick Baer and Samuel Miller terminated six key employees, though the recommendation was eight. Another employee resigned shortly before the pivotal meeting. The following February the board hired an administrator. He replaced the fired manager, with the job responsibilities shifted slightly. For the balance of 2009 the township operated with 16 employees instead of 22, more than Dhillon's recommended staffing level of 14.
How'd he do?
Has time proven that Dhillon's recommendations were accurate? Has the township saved the money from his specific cost-cutting measures? Have township services been provided to the same or better standards than before?
The Echo Pilot asked township personnel for their viewpoint on the results. In March chairman Baer refused to sit down for an interview on the reorganization. Administrator Brad Graham offered to help provide information on the township's perspective post-Dhillon. Baer had agreed to review written questions and the two would find the answers together. A list of questions was submitted in early April. No response has been returned. Dhillon also did not respond to an e-mail asking for his opinion on ramifications of his report.
A simple analysis of Antrim Township was undertaken by the Echo Pilot, reviewing distinct Dhillon recommendations and looking at actions taken by the supervisors. Dhillon's complete report, supporting his reasons for certain opinions, has never been fully released to the public despite extensive efforts by the Echo Pilot to have the information released.
Dhillon's most dramatic recommendation was to adjust the staffing level by eight people, over one-third of the workforce, stating those positions "can and should be eliminated." He cited examples of people underworked in every department, leading to an excess of employees. A new compacted workforce would position Antrim to deliver services effectively right away and in the future. "Not only are the reduced staffing levels appropriate today," he wrote, "but the recommended staffing level and structure will fulfill any and all needs over the next five to 10 years."
Antrim has struggled to maintain services with its remaining employees. In the summer of 2009 and again in 2010, it hired three seasonal employees to do office work, mow, assist the road crew and perform other manual labor. The positions were parttime, up to 32 hours, with no benefits.
Dhillon said three supervisory positions — roadmaster, utilities director and superintendent — "can and should be handled by one position functioning as a maintenance superintendent and capital projects manager." He urged the board to consider and possibly accept that the three people in those positions were not qualified to take on the new title. The three were fired and supervisors promoted a road laborer to roadmaster/utilities superintendent. He garnered over $10,000 in overtime in 2009. He resigned in February 2010.
The supervisors redesigned the position and advertised for a public works director. Applications were due May 21.
Dhillon had not seen the value of a utilities director as the job was defined in 2008 and earlier. He found several downsides to the set-up. "The director almost seems to function somewhat independently of and parallel to daily operations (because) the office is several miles from the treatment plant and subordinate staff. This is a common mistake in local government. (It) results in a natural disconnect from daily operations," he wrote in the report.
The responsibilities for the new public works director are more office-based than was the roadmaster/utilities superintendent's job, but will require considerable fieldwork, Graham said two weeks ago. He is processing eight applications. If none of the candidates are acceptble, he will readvertise the position.
The supervisors said the new person would be in charge of roads, utilities and parks.
The consultant found that the administrative secretary performed unnecessary duties and the billing clerk's job required only 25 percent of one person's time, so both positions should be eliminated. Instead, the supervisors fired the financial secretary.
Dhillon assessed that the road crew was also overstaffed, so the supervisors cut it from five to four people. The crew could not keep up with the workload. After months of discussion and funding a fifth position in the 2010 budget, on March 9 the supervisors authorized Graham to hire another laborer. He received 44 resumes and the board hired someone June 8. Antrim did not call back either of the two road crew people who were fired.
While Dhillon did not recommend the board fire the township manager in 2008, he said at the public meeting Aug. 21 that he offered opinions on the post. His analysis was partially redacted in the document made available to citizens. He did write, "perhaps the township can and would be better served under a manager with dual experience, expertise and background. (It) could be manager/finance director, manager/planning director, or manager/township engineer." Graham's title became administrator/utilities director.
Supervisors help out
During the initial months of transition, and again presently, supervisors took on paid and unpaid duties to keep township operations going. Young was appointed to the top leadership post until Graham was hired. Early on Young said though he was putting in 40 hours, the management position really required only 30 to 35 hours per week of work. He received remuneration for the six months. Baer oversaw utilities and roads without payment. Today he is acting roadmaster/utilities superintendent with pay until the public works director is hired.
The mechanic was seen as underutilized by up to 50 percent. He should typically be able to handle 90 to 110 vehicle equivalents, far less than Antrim's inventory, according to the report. Therefore Dhillon recommended Antrim increase the mechanic's workload by contracting with the Borough of Greencastle and other municipalities to service their vehicles.
He also felt Antrim could reduce its fleet of trucks. While he appreciated the need for snow-plowing, he advised the township to use other agencies to help with plowing services as support and backup, primarily private providers.
Dhillon suggested collaborating with Greencastle on road maintenance as well. Another sharing opportunity was to consolidate with Greencastle for water and sewer billing services. He also recommended Antrim outsource its water plant maintenance and operation to the borough.
As far as police services, a hot and cold issue for township residents, Dhillon found the Franklin County Regional Police Study completed in 2006 to be "quite flawed." The study was commissioned by Antrim and Greencastle through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to the Governor's Center for Local Government Services. Dhillon said the study did not present a credible analysis or reasonable alternatives. Therefore, he said a better approach was for Antrim to contract law enforcement coverage from Greencastle if state law changed to require paying for state police services.
While Antrim is in negotiations to sell its small water plant to the Greencastle Area Franklin County Water Authority, none of the other “sharing” issues have been under serious discussion in a public format since the 2008 reorganization.
It is obvious that fewer employees mean fewer personnel expenses. However, Dhillon said the savings from staff reductions would be $488,000 annually. Township officials did not confirm or deny that figure was achieved. The balance of $29,000 in annual savings was to come from several small adjustments in operations.
What Dhillon did not address was the loss of knowledge and experience. The combined service of the six terminated employees was 55 years. Paring the staffing level by terminating from the top down rather than the bottom up puzzled residents. How has that impacted the present and future of the township? Have any worthwhile projects been abandoned or delayed due to lack of manpower? Has more money been spent on attorneys, engineers and other professionals than in the past to handle township business? Can every position be covered by cross-trained personnel? Are there monthly activity reports, weekly work schedules and daily reporting as Dhillon advised? Is there a longterm vision for Antrim or is it a day to day scramble?
Whether services by the local municipal government are being delivered more efficiently is left to the judgement of the residents.
Without hearing from the elected and appointed officials, we are left to wonder: Was Dhillon wrong?