By Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
An employee engagement and work culture study has determined no “morale problem” at Town Hall among employees, although it did find some negativity.
The Fairhaven Selectboard on 12/7 reviewed the study results with Mary Beth Bernard, the consultant who assessed the workplace climate at Town Hall over the summer. That assessment included a review of town records, policies, and information from the Internet and surveys and interviews with employees and department heads, focus group meetings and an analysis of employee turnover.
The survey asked employees and Selectboard members to define a positive workplace culture, and some of the top answers were appreciation, communication, collaboration, fairness, and “no rumors.”
But when it came to how employees view the current workplace culture, the results were predominantly negative: cliques, closed doors, divided, dysfunctional, gossipy, losing good people, negative, political, rumors, sour, toxic, turmoil, unfair social media, unsupportive, unwelcoming, and work alone.
“What looks like a negative, I have to say, the essence of this report is really everybody is very satisfied with their jobs,” said Ms. Bernard. “However, the climate is not what they’re satisfied with.”
The majority of responses were positive, with most employees expressing that they felt free to express their opinions at work, feel appreciated by their department heads, and believe that their work makes a difference for the town. They trust their co-workers within their departments and overall feel they have received appropriate training.
They especially appreciated the opportunities for professional development regularly offered and supported by Town Administrator Mark Rees, and most respondents did not perceive a practice of favoritism within their departments.
“So, there’s a lot of love for the town,” said Ms. Bernard. “Don’t get me wrong, we did talk about unpleasant things.”
But overall, she said, “You have a very strong foundation there. [The next town administrator and human resources director] have a really strong workforce to work with.”
Employees’ advice to the Selectboard: Stop misrepresenting them in the media; start uniting, not dividing; don’t participate in gossip; don’t ignore issues, solve them; set a good example, especially during meetings; get off Facebook; stop targeting good employees; establish a culture of fairness; foster teamwork; and “communication is key.”
Ms. Bernard said employees often feel that they receive pertinent information through gossip and second-hand sources, including pertinent information, and some reported no consistent communication.
Employees love their jobs, for the most part, Ms. Bernard said, “But they’re embarrassed when people come into Town Hall and say their morale is low.”
Some things have changed over the past couple of years as well, employees say. Office doors are now closed when it used to be more open and family-like. And while they feel appreciated almost daily by their supervisors, employees report that town “leaders” rarely recognize them for their hard work.
“You have the basis to rescue this,” said Mr. Bernard. “It’s not a sinking ship. You have great people who like their jobs and departments that trust each other, and thats what most municipalities strive for.”
As for a high turnover, Ms. Bernard said there is no turnover pattern, but there had been some recent “high profile turnover.”
Overall, employees rated Town Hall a great place to work, although many expressed that they wished they could have answered the question the highest grade. They said they hoped the board would use the study results to make improvements.
The board’s focus should be on communication and recognition, said Ms. Bernard, and recommended that new TA and HR director candidates receive copies of the report. She recommended they hold regular meetings with employees instead of just department heads.
“They have faith that the board’s going to do the right thing with this report and maybe come up with a way to recruit a new town administrator that’s going to be big on communication and recognition [and] to continue the work that [Mr. Rees] did,” Ms. Bernard said. “I thought I was going to find a huge culture problem, but I found a high employee engagement quotient.”
Selectboard member Bob Espindola said the results were helpful and a significant opportunity for the board to do better for the employees. He asked Ms. Bernard about the board’s tentative need to appoint an interim town administrator and whether this study should play a role in their selection.
“Absolutely,” said Ms. Bernard. She recommended appointing someone outside of Town Hall, such as a retired TA, instead of a current town employee.
“It’s a hard position to put internal people in that role,” especially when there is some “unrest,” she said. “I think it’s a lot of pressure to put on an internal candidate…. It’s actually probably a disservice to them to be placed in an interim role and then be a candidate.”
Mr. Espindola said he struggled to comprehend how employees could describe the workplace culture as unfavorable but respond favorably to most of the questions.
Ms. Bernard said that within the departments, employees are mostly happy; it is across the entire workplace at Town Hall where most feel discontent. For example, staff used to enjoy Christmas parties, but division and gossip, “things that were beyond their control,” Ms. Bernard said, is a “wound that really showed.”
Selectboard member Keith Silvia said he was afraid “people wouldn’t open up” for the study. “I knew there was some division, and it seems like you did get to that.”
Ms. Bernard recommended repeating the study in two years to gauge improvement.
“I’m so happy that we finally got this report,” said Selectboard Chairperson Daniel Freitas. He said he had been trying for two years to get this study done, but the “logjam” persisted until Mr. Silvia joined the board. “It sort of validates some of the things that I was saying. All I wanted at the time was to make sure that all our employees were happy.”
The board approved issuing the request for proposals for the study on 6/30 at Mr. Rees’s suggestion. Mr. Freitas insisted there had been a persistent “morale problem at Town Hall” for some time and made reference to letters and emails that he and other selectmen had received, saying, “I don’t think there’s any denying it….”*
After an exchange with Mr. Freitas [on 6/30]**, Mr. Rees stated, “For the record, I welcome this report.”
He said he believed there were some “disgruntled employees with their own agenda in their hand.”
With the results now in hand, Mr. Rees asked Ms. Bernard: “So, is there a morale problem, or isn’t there?”
“No,” she replied. “I don’t think there is. I think there is a perception problem.”
In other business, the board also set the tax rate, and although property values increased, the tax rate did, too.
The average single-family house went up in value in 2021 to $319,583 from $316,541 in 2020. The board accepted the Board of Assessors’ recommended residential tax rate of $11.29 per $1,000 in value, up from $11.06/$1,000 in 2020, which, in combination with the rise in property value, will result in an increase of roughly $107 for the average single-family home.
The board voted to keep the split-tax rate, which taxes commercial properties at a higher rate than residential properties. The commercial tax rate for 2021 increased to $22.53/$1,000 from $22.04 in 2020.
The board also approved the BOA’s recommendations that Fairhaven not adopt a residential exemption to reduce the taxable valuation of a taxpayer’s principal residence, and not adopt a small commercial business exemption that would reduce small business valuation by 10%.
The BOA explained that adopting a residential exemption would raise the residential tax rate on all residential properties except those that are assessed below the average home. Adopting the small business exemption is not feasible because it is too difficult to determine who qualifies, and the tax rate would increase for ineligible businesses.
Mr. Rees commented that the $336,613 in new growth revenue for 2021 is the second-highest in 15 years. In 2018, new growth reached $381,000. He attributed the increase to an uptick in new home and business construction and additions that were all properly recorded.
“[This increase] reflects the fact that Fairhaven is a good place for people to live and operate their business,” Mr. Rees said. “I’m very proud of the town for being able to have these high new growth numbers.”
The board approved Mr. Rees’s appointment of Deputy Chief Todd Correia as the acting fire chief effective 1/9, the day after Fire Chief Timothy Francis retires.
“I have total faith in him taking over,” said Mr. Francis.
In other business the board:
• Approved the updated volunteer committee handbook; and the revised Wage and Classification Schedule as a result of the minimum wage increase.
• Met with the Housing Authority to appoint Ronnie Manzone and Marc Scanlon to fill the two vacant seats.
Also during the meeting, Diane Hahn interrupted to ask Mr. Freitas if he had a medical condition preventing him from wearing his mask properly (over his nose), a complaint voiced in meetings in the past. Mr. Freitas answered that he did, indeed, have a COPD.
*Due to an error during the editing process, this paragraph was left out in previous versions, thereby mistakenly attributing the quotes to the wrong meeting, although they were made by the people cited. We apologize for any confusion our error may have caused.
**Date added for clarity.
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