Sanbornton will take long look at privatizing public works

SANBORNTON — At the request of one selectman and two members of the municipal Budget Committee, the Selectboard has created a committee to see if the town should privatize the highway portion of Department of Public Works.

The committee, whose tentative members are scheduled to meet with selectmen today, is tasked with exploring other towns that have privatized or subcontracted their road work to private contractors and to see if the town could realize any savings.

"It looks like Sanbornton could save between $500,000 and $700,000," said selectman Dave Nickerson. "That's an awful lot of money."

Budget Committee Chair Earl Leighton said he is in full support of examining the possibilities.

Leighton said the Department of Public Works operating budget is around $1 million, plus $400,000 in capital expenses for road paving and reconstruction. He said the department has six full-time employees including the director.

"I'm critical of the entire system," Leighton said, not referring specifically to Sanbornton but to the idea of municipalities having town-operated departments of public works when there are private contractors who would want the work and bid competitively to get it.

Leighton also said the system is inefficient and gave the town's need to replace a 10-year-old dump truck as an example. "I'm driving a 1987 dump truck and it works just fine," he said.

"The director becomes a maestro," he said, meaning that in his vision of Sanbornton's future the town would continue to have a DPW director but he or she would act to coordinate private contractors to get the needed work done.

Nickerson said yesterday that, according to data provided by the N.H. Local Government Center and researched by the town administrator, 12 or 13  of the state's 200 plus communities — including Salsbury, Webster, and Newbury — have subcontracted out their highway maintenance to private companies.

He said community's on that list range in size from 1,000 to 5,000 residents. Sanbornton has about 2,800.

In the past 10 or so years since Gene Auger retired as the elected road agent, Sanbornton has had a revolving door of DPW directors  — from Ralph Carter who succeeded Auger to Lenny Boudrias who was hired to replace Carter and lasted only a few months to John Hubbard, John Thayer and now Johnny VanTassel, who took over about a year and a half ago. The director is now appointed by selectmen and not elected by voters — a decision made by voters at an annual town meeting at least seven years ago.

Over the same amount of time there has been a constant undercurrent of criticism of the work done by the highway department and its employees, some of which has lead to a high turnover rate and some of which can be attributed to employees and directors being able to earn more money in larger municipalities — a problem that also exists for the Police Department.

In that same time span, the town has built a $1-million Department of Public Works building — something Nickerson said could be used as a new fire station, giving the Police Department more room.

According to minutes of a meeting held this past summer, three of six employees including the foreman have resigned this year — two citing the ability to earn more elsewhere and one citing problems with management. As of three weeks ago, the town was seeking to replace a laborer's position.

Selectmen offered a list of seven people they felt should serve on a DPW privatization committee — Jeff Jenkins of the Budget Committee, Bill Whalen, Fire Chief Paul Dexter, Andy Sanborn, retired Finance Director Curt McGee, DPW Director Johnny VanTassel, Mark Thurston, and Ralph Rathjen.

Any decision to privatize the DPW must be approved by annual town meeting in May said Leighton and Nickerson, who added the earliest he could foresee anything going to the voters is the town meeting in 2015.

Town Administrator Bob Veloski said yesterday he has contacted all of proposed committee members, with the exception of Sanborn and all of the chosen have been invited to attend tonight's selectman's meeting that begins a 4:30 p.m.