Interview of Greg Balukonis

March 27, 2014

Greg Balukonis interview

Opening Statement: Lives in Shrewsbury. He’s in the business of city manager. Is not a politician; not in the private sector; not an academic; is in local government. That’s his strength but he knows the job is more than sitting behind the desk and telling people what to do. Town administrator in North Reading for 8 years. Knows the Greater Lowell area. Lowell has a long history of excellence in city managers. Duties in North Reading similar to here but scale very different. Still, there are parallels and many of the duties are identical. North Reading affluent and a demanding population. His goal is to deliver excellence. In 30 years in field he’s worked in Medway and Norfolk and North Reading. He’s familiar with Massachusetts law. He knows collaboration works best.

Councilor Belanger: Question – Tell us about North Reading? 16000 people, budget of $56mil. Question – Local newspaper reported your most recent review in North Reading was not a favorable one; can you explain that? The elected membership has changed over time. “The magic is not there anymore.” They’re all fine people but they have different philosophy about how the town should be run. Most recent review not very good but all the previous ones were “commendable” so you should average them out. I have strong community support and support from the department heads and staff. Urges councilors to contact people who work for the town. “My reputation speaks for itself notwithstanding critical comments on last performance review.” I haven’t forgotten how to do the job. Question – I don’t see much on your resume about economic development? I know it’s a priority of your community. It’s important to North Reading but it has issues about infrastructure such as sewer and water that had to be addressed before you can do economic development. Question – what is your greatest economic development achievement? We’ve created an expedited method for permitting for a number of parcels that are ready for development once they get sewage. Question – what have you done for public safety? He’s hired 2 police chiefs. Significant drug issue in North Reading. Police have a community impact team. Fulltime school resource officer.

Mayor Elliott: Question – In your opening you mentioned transparency; could you give some examples? There’s tremendous interest in labor contracts. In the past it not a lot was said about it. Now we make the contracts available to the public so the public knows all the costs of government. Also, the budget development is done at public meetings. Question – You cite concessions in health care in negotiations; explain? I was the head negotiator. The town was in a very costly insurance plan. All new revenue going towards that. We switched to a new health insurance program (not GIC) and the increases are much less. Unions cooperated because they knew large increases would prevent raises and more personnel. Question – Any experience with sick time buy back? We’ve slowly lowered the amounts that can be bought back. Question – what are some of the challenges you face in North Reading? Before me, the schools prepared their budgets in isolation. We now bring school and town sides together early in the process. Also has transitioned from an older staff to a younger, more computer savvy staff.

Councilor Kennedy: Question – I know one of the North Reading selectman and gave him a call and he confirmed what you said that there was a major change in the board and gave you high marks. Question – Would you come here without a contract? I hadn’t thought of that. I’ve had one in prior communities. It would provide me with security to make difficult decisions. I would prefer having one. It’s nice to have things defined. So, maybe. Question – Can you cite any economic development efforts in any communities you’ve worked in? Early in my career I was heavily involved in grant writing. Many of them were for businesses that would create jobs. It’s difficult for me to point to a particular business in 21 years and say I had a hand in bringing them into the community. I would have to get up to speed on that very quickly. Question – What would be your approach to economic development here? Look at the expertise of the University in developing strategies. Would also work with Mass Office of Business Planning. Much of economic development is by businesses already here that need to expand. Question – What’s the atmosphere in town hall in North Reading? A great spirit, we are friendly to the public, we all work well together.

Councilor Leahy: Question – Explain the importance of bond ratings? It’s critical because it translate to the interest rate you must pay when you borrow for capital projects. Question – How would you hire staff like CFO? In North Reading the CFO made a bad mistake on the budget and was fired. The town solicited people. We wanted someone technically savvy because of new software we installed. Also someone familiar with the statutory accounting requirements. Also someone who could analyze trends and financial policies. We found the right person. She had been a candidate for your auditor position but she withdrew and came to North Reading instead. Question – how did you upgrade fire department medical training? Board set objective of offering town advanced life support. We offered existing firefighters opportunity to upgrade and then hired off civil service lists. This new service provides town with $700,000 in revenue each year. Question – what would your first day on the job be like? Talking to people, listening, starting to look for common threads.

Councilor Martin: Question – [clarifying North Reading’s CFO position; the town’s sewer providers, etc]. Question – North Reading won an e-government award for your website; tell us about that? We take pride in making information available online. You can pay bills, view your account; people don’t have to come to town hall; they can do it all online. We’re working to put permitting online too. We installed Munis two years ago (government computerized accounting system).

Councilor Mercier: Question – Have you stopped in Lowell? I’ve been in city hall and been in the community a number of times. The city has a long history. You have a good reputation in the field. That’s one of the things that attracted me. The redevelopment of mills as housing is intriguing. The University is prominent and highly esteemed. I know you have issues with traffic and public safety staffing. Question – what is your relationship with the state regarding bringing money to the city? North Reading gets a small amount of state aid. It’s important for the manager to have a good relationship with the state house delegation and strongly make the case for the need of more state aid. Question – what role does neighborhood groups play? Understanding the stakeholders is one of the big challenges for your new manager. Question – How do you convince me that Lowell is a good fit when you said Dracut was a good fit? My tenure in North Reading is winding down. I want to stay in Massachusetts. I’m interested in Plan E. I’m a professional. The community I work in will get my full attention. Question – Why was Dracut a better fit? Town meeting form of government. Question – would you consider moving here? Yes. Your manager should be someone who wants to live here.

Councilor Milinazzo: Question – The process for the North Reading strategic plan? Board has a facilitator come in each year and help do an analysis. He says he thinks the board’s plan was too detailed. Question – what would you do to get Lowell’s high commercial tax rate more competitive? Changes have to be done incrementally with an eye towards its effect on residential rate. Maybe you use new growth to make up the reduction in commercial. Question – Any city services you think should be regionalized? Absolutely. The public wants it. Things like health inspections, code enforcement can be done regionally. Internally, consolidating services with the schools is another option. But regionalization sounds great but you have to be sure you’re getting comparable services.

Councilor Rourke: Question – Expound on problem with finance director? We went to town meeting and voted a budget that was $1mil out of balance. Finance department had “careless math” that had serious problems for the community. I liked the person but he had to go. Question – Describe a typical weekly selectmen’s meeting? They meet every other week. Agenda starts with items carried over. Review agenda with chair of board. Don’t do paper agendas or documents. Board has iPads, everything done electronically. Question – give a scenario where you would tap into reserves? We have a separate water reserve that was funded through a lawsuit settlement. Our water costs are going up 5% but we only want to raise it for customers 2% (for example) so we would use stabilization fund to lessen the impact on customers. [short questions] Lots of new growth in N. Reading. He’s very involved in the schools but doesn’t give them all the financing they request.

Councilor Samaras: Question – we’re facing a tax increase, hiring more police, building new schools, how would you guide us in making the tough budget choices we face? You’ve seen only minimal increases recently. I can’t say until I actually look at the budget that there would be no tax increase but if the council’s goal is no tax increase, I would try very hard to achieve it. Public safety has to be a priority so new positions there are needed but it might require cuts in other places. Question – describe a situation where you used your problem solving skills? Describes a town meeting that didn’t get a quorum. He had to basically rewrite all the articles to do them in a different type of forum that didn’t require a quorum. Question – back to public safety, statistics say we’re a safe city but there have been spikes in crime; how would you as the face of the city react to violent crime incidents? The manager needs to articulate in terms of budget and staffing recommendations things the chief has identified as needs. Show support for chief, be visible with the chief. I wouldn’t ride around in a cruiser but I would feel comfortable communicating with the chief about it.

Closing Statement: Your community is looking for a manager and a leader. You can quantify the technical skills but you’re looking for more than that. I have those traits. I know you can’t survive by sitting behind a desk all day. This is what I do for a living. It’s challenging, it’s hard. Hopefully I’ve shown you the necessary traits here today. Thanks for the questions. I’m impressed with the council.