It’s been exactly two years since The Novak Consulting Group recommended the Town of Purcellville implement four dozen initiatives to improve its government operations. In that time, town leaders have discussed all the recommendations in some capacity and have initiated projects to address a handful of those suggestions.
The Town Council in June 2018 hired Novak to perform an organizational assessment of the town’s government structure for $69,800. On Dec. 5, 2018, the consulting group returned its 48 recommendations, aimed at improving the town’s policies, procedures, staffing levels and management practices across all departments, excluding the Police Department.
Those recommendations were categorized into eight groups: six intended for the Town Council, five for the administration team, six for the human resources team, two for the information technology team, nine for the finance team, two for the parks and recreation team, four for the community development team and 14 for the public works team.
They included suggestions to establish better communication between the Town Council and the staff, develop a performance measurement system for staffers, create a Technology Advisory Committee, develop a parks and recreation annual work plan, develop a comprehensive economic plan and adopt a simplified utility rate structure.
Town Manager David Mekarski estimated it would take seven years and $3.7 million for the town to implement all 48 recommendations—$2.3 million to pay consultants and $1.4 million in in-kind contributions.
“This is something that can’t be done overnight,” he said. “To that end I think that we’ve made a lot of progress.”
Mekarski said progress on implementing all 48 recommendations is “running in the background.”
“We do that every day of our calendar year,” he said.
Mayor Kwasi Fraser keeps a spreadsheet with updates on all of those recommendations, noting some as being ongoing, some as completed and others delayed by the pandemic.
A Need for ‘Communication,’ ‘Cooperation’
While working through the recommendations, the Town Council and the town management team have sometimes struggled to align their goals.
To help, Fraser said it’s most important to look at Novak’s first few recommendations.
The first, second and third recommendations are to regularly update and revise the town’s strategic plan and priority focus areas, to develop organizational and department work plans based on the Town Council’s strategic plan, and to establish a formal protocol for council and staff communication, respectively.
Mekarski agreed that the first recommendation was one of the most important to tackle, noting that the town’s strategic plan needs to be revised every two years when there’s a change on the Town Council.
“You really can’t ignore that,” he said, noting that he’s planning to meet with Vice Mayor Mary Jane Williams and Councilmen Christopher Bertaut and Stanley Milan in January, all of whom were elected in June.
Councilman Tip Stinnette, too, said the third recommendation was of great importance.
Fraser said “it’s always been a challenge” to ensure the town manager’s actions are in line with the council’s priorities and that Mekarski has been presenting projects that are “not in lockstep” with the council’s strategic initiatives. He said that Mekarski is omitting from the annual budgets many innovative ideas designed to generate the town revenue.
In response, Mekarski pointed to the town-owned 189-acre Aberdeen property, which, he said, he and his team spent a “tremendous amount of energy” examining. The town staff for months has been working to prepare a request for proposals soliciting responses from firms interested in setting up a nutrient bank there—an initiative designed to provide the town with revenue from nutrient credit sales.
Mekarski said he isn’t worried about separation between the Town Council and his staff.
“We don’t have to be in lockstep,” he said. “In a democracy, there always should be a healthy tension between the executive and legislative branch.”
Mekarski added that the tension has never become unhealthy.
Fraser noted the town has made some progress in recent years. He pointed to the Fireman’s Field contract with Shaun Alexander Enterprises, a relationship begun in early 2018 that was soon after soured when Alexander attempted to back out of his contract.
Fraser also mentioned the town’s agreement with Lumos Networks, which is seeing the network pay the town $30,000 annually to install and maintain a fiber optic cable system within the town’s public rights-of-way. The Town Council voted to approve that agreement March 10.
In an effort to improve alignment between the Town Council’s and town management team’s priorities, Fraser said he brought in a dean from neighboring Patrick Henry College last year to sit down with the town staff and talk through projects. He said that was done at no cost to the town.
“It makes no sense to have a management team doing operations that are not in sync with us,” Fraser said.
Mekarski said that meeting, which included all of the town’s department heads, saw the dean and town staff discuss about 170 town projects, all of which were separate from the Novak recommendations. He pointed out that the 10 most important projects they identified were each aligned with The Town Council’s strategic plan.
Overall, Fraser said the separation he sees between the Town Council and town staff is “not a major disconnect” and that it’s seen in many organizations. He said “cooperation” and “constant communication” would be the keys to bridge the divide. Mekarski said his staffers are instructed to be “open, honest, candid and courageous.”
Fraser noted that he tries to meet with Mekarski at least once a week. Mekarksi said those meetings are “actually very helpful.”
Eyeing the Utility Rates, Staff Pay, Project Costs
Aside from getting the Town Council and staff on the same page, both have different ideas as to which recommendations are most important to take on.
Mekarski and Stinnette agreed the town needs to develop a comprehensive economic development plan and implement a simplified utility rate structure, as outlined in recommendations 34 and 47, respectively.
The Town Council on March 18 voted to adopt that simplified rate structure, but nine months later it has yet to be applied to the town’s utility billing system.
Fraser said town leaders also need to ensure the compensation study—which the town hired an outside firm to complete, as outlined in Novak’s fourth recommendation—is implemented appropriately. He stressed that the 10,200-resident town should not be compared with the 54,000-resident Town of Leesburg or the 413,500-resident county as a whole.
Mekarski said that study was performed by examining other communities with similar budgets, staffs and other criteria, regardless of their populations.
Fraser also said the process the town staff uses to create and advertise requests for proposals needs to be streamlined, since, he said, it takes too long for those to get issued. For instance, the town staff has been working for months to develop an RFP soliciting responses from firms interested in setting up the Aberdeen nutrient bank, but that RFP won’t go out until this week or next, Mekarski said. The Town Council didn’t provide the town staff with final direction on the contents of that RFP until October.
Fraser added that the town should use requests for proposals to obtain more accurate financial estimates from outside entities on projects in the town’s Capital Improvement Program. He said that would prevent the town management team from estimating costs and moving ahead with charging taxpayers based on those estimates.
Mekarski pointed out the town staff is not estimating project costs.
“We are basing [project costs] from preliminary engineering that was accomplished by one of our engineers on retainer,” he said. “Those numbers are highly accurate.”
A Difference in Committees
Another recommendation Novak made was for the town to set up a Technology Advisory Committee to help the Town Council “more effectively gather feedback regarding technology issues from town staff.”
When asked why that committee had yet to be created and what the difference was between it and the newly formed Community Policing Advisory Committee, which the Town Council was able to discuss, create and begin accepting applications for in less than four months, Fraser said the Technology Advisory Committee would be “more internal” in nature, meaning it would serve the town staff and not residents directly. He compared it with the town’s other committees, including the new policing advisory committee, which, he said, are “citizen focused.”
The policing advisory committee is intended to review community policing issues and make recommendations to the Town Council concerning the procedures and policies town police officers use, how officer complaints are handled, and how bias and deadly force cases are investigated, among other duties, according to the ordinance to create the committee.
Looking Toward 2025
Overall, Fraser said the town has made “significant progress” on the Novak recommendations.
“I think we are in great shape with these recommendations,” he said.
Mekarski said that while he doesn’t expect town business to “radically change” in the next five years to the point where the town needs to have another organizational assessment completed, the COVID-19 pandemic nevertheless is changing Purcellville. He said it would be beneficial to focus on technological advances, since the pandemic has brought rise to virtual meetings across the world.
No other Town Council members responded to a Nov. 20 email seeking input on the Novak recommendations.