Essex’s two recreation directors reaffirmed hopes to move their departments into a single office space next year, touting the benefits of co-locating while stressing a goal to preserve their identities.
Essex Parks and Recreation director Ally Vile and Essex Jct. Recreation and Parks director Brad Luck told the trustees and selectboard last week they’re aiming for a late summer move if all goes according to plan.
In a memo to the boards, they said both staffs could operate out of the offices at Maple Street Park, losing only a conference room in the process, while staff duties would remain the same with several exceptions: Job descriptions would be tweaked to allow two staffers to perform duties for both departments, and both directors would supervise the senior center program director.
Vile and Luck have said co-locating would create a one-stop-shop for all recreational needs instead of the confusing relationship the two now maintain, where they often find residents are unsure of what department offers what programs. They sped up their planning process in recent weeks so the boards could address any needed budgetary impacts the next fiscal year.
“We found that everybody’s on board and supportive, and we’re all ready to proceed,” Luck said.
One big change will be to program fees. Currently, town-outside-the-village residents pay non-resident fees for EJRP programs and sometimes register later than village residents. Under the new proposal, anyone who lives in Essex will pay the same price and be afforded the same priority.
“We need to have one communication to people, and that is that they are residents,” Luck said. He said he plans to budget about $7,000 less revenue for non-resident fees.
Luck and Vile expected some savings by switching over to a single brochure and registration system. Those savings would compete with funding for a new part-time communications and marketing coordinator, however, whose salary would be paid by both departments. They planned to propose that position in the upcoming budget.
But the elected boards have repeatedly asked for a municipality-wide communications specialist, and trustee Andrew Brown said he’d prefer to secure that position instead of one solely focused on recreation. Advocating for the position, Luck said recreation requires an immediacy due to cancellations and other daily changes that most other departments don’t see.
Last week’s joint meeting comes two years after Essex voters shot down a proposal that would have created a joint recreation district. That proposal, and the process leading up to it, became the subject of ire for many who opposed creating another layer of government, one with its own taxing authority.
Selectwoman Irene Wrenner, who has applauded the directors’ goal to improve customer service and find savings, asked what “checks and balances” they would use to ensure this process doesn’t mimic that of two years ago.
“A lot of voters need a lot of reassurance that this isn’t the same thing,” she said, citing the departments’ “credibility gap” created two years ago. She added she wants to see a transparent, ethical process that shows “exemplary behavior” by everyone involved.
The directors didn’t weigh in on Wrenner’s question, but some of her elected colleagues did. Trustee and selectwoman Elaine Sopchak said that unlike the previous rec proposal, this one won’t result in a tax hike, nor will it take away each department’s individual budget. Selectman Michael Plageman likened it to the police department moving into a single building and said “the gain in operating and efficiencies” will outweigh any “bumps” along the way.
Some officials did recognize the potential for this new proposal to be conflated with the old one, like selectman Andy Watts, who questioned what would happen if one of the two communities opposed the idea come budget time.
“I just want to make sure we’re careful when we move forward that it doesn’t look like a backroom deal,” he said, wanting to avoid a “publicity nightmare.” To many residents, the proposal may feel like a merger regardless of what it’s called, he said.
Resident Margaret Smith agreed. She said while the directors say their departments will remain separate, “it’s not going to look like it from the outside.”
“It sure looks like merging to me,” she said.
Others, however, shared positive reviews. Jerry Fox, a staunch opponent of the 2016 proposal, recalled his apprehension stemmed from creating more government. “I see absolutely nothing wrong with this,” he said.
And Diane Clemens, who previously served on the village’s recreation advisory group, called it a “brilliant idea” that’s been a long time coming.
“The two departments collaborate always on a lot of different programs, and now they’ll be talking they can be in the same room face to face … only to the benefit of the entire residents of our community,” she said.