Hopkinton’s town department heads convened on Wednesday night with elected leaders and residents to share their strategies or strengthening the functioning of local government, stressing the importance of collaborative approaches and shared goals.
Town Manager Norman Khumalo kicked off the two-hour virtual forum, also called an “all-hands meeting.” He painted a picture of a town that is growing more populous and more diverse, but also one that is seeing a growing gap between people who are economically challenged and those who have greater resources. Outlining the ways in which departments will meet these challenges in the coming fiscal year and beyond was a key focus of the meeting.
“Once again, we gather in the spirit of working together,” he said, noting that this was the third meeting of its kind and that it was planned over the last two months. “As the saying goes, ‘Good collaboration amplifies strength.’ ”
Khumalo said the goals of department heads were reflective of “a tighter and more precise alignment between the town’s strategic goals and departmental priorities.” What impressed him most about the presentations, he said, were the departments’ values of “fairness, efficiency, empowerment, equity, inclusion, belonging and care.”
Khumalo presented data about the town gathered between 2012 and 2020. While the median income for Hopkinton households rose 35 percent to $170,000, conversely, the number of people living in poverty increased by the same percentage during this period. This has occurred while the town’s population increased by 20 percent, he said.
“This data to me represents a very wide range of challenges and opportunities that are faced by the community of Hopkinton,” he stressed. He planned to address these circumstances by promoting transparency, increasing communication, and providing a good quality of life for all residents.
The meeting was facilitated by John Wortmann, a best-selling author and an executive coach to municipalities throughout New England. He had worked with the town over the past three years. This process emerged because of the inability to meet in person during the pandemic.
Select Board Chair Amy Ritterbusch stressed the goals of mental health as a human right, completing a balanced budget two weeks before Town Meeting, and addressing climate change, among other priorities.
Department heads each shared what their vision of a good department looks like. They also provided stories that exemplified positive actions that made a tangible difference in the lives of residents. Everyone stressed the overall importance of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, adding department specific objectives.
Assistant Town Manager Elaine Lazarus represented the Department of Land Use, Planning & Permitting. Her vision was for a “vibrant and inclusive” town that would be a leader in sustainability. A climate action plan is in the works as well as a net zero resolution.
Health Director Shaun McAuliffe noted the achievements his department has made despite the challenges of the pandemic, receiving state and national recognition for maintaining one of the best COVID-19 vaccination rates in Massachusetts. The department’s goals for fiscal year 2024 include developing a strategic plan, communicating better about the services the department offers, and expanding services without increasing taxes.
“I would argue that most don’t understand the level of service that we provide to the community,” he explained. He noted that there are 170 Massachusetts Department of Public Health requirements the department must meet, and Hopkinton has done that successfully while working on developing future programming.
Parks & Recreation Director Jay Guelfi said that while the department’s vision of providing healthy and engaging activities has remained constant, he envisions new ways to do so. One is to construct “a first-class cricket pitch” at Pyne Field for the growing community of more than 200 people who currently enjoy the sport in town. This resembled the department’s efforts in previous years to incorporate pickleball, another increasingly popular sport, in its programming.
For elders, he wanted to create a “jigsaw puzzle bowl” so that they could feel included in recreational activities that are not physical. Additionally, a master plan is in the works for field reconfiguration, Guelfi added.
Also regarding seniors, Amy Beck stressed the importance of making elders feel included by providing programming and resources, particularly for those whose primary language is not English.
Increasing the number of emergency responders, improving Fire Station 2, and improving communication were other goals stressed during the hour-long series of presentations.
“Imagine if there wasn’t someone to return your call,” Woodman noted, saying that there will be budget requests on the horizon for these critical initiatives.
For the schools, new Assistant Superintendent Jeffrey LaBroad stressed that the district’s theme is “all means all” for its 4,000 students and about 600 staff members. Enrollment, he said, is growing “at an exponential pace” because the quality of the school system is attracting new residents.
To meet this growth, buildings will need to be expanded. Also, all students’ needs must be accommodated, which requires more resources and time.
“Until everyone is meeting or exceeding those standards, we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “And we’re going to continue to do it.”
With the state election taking place on Tuesday, Town Clerk Connor Degan stressed his efforts to increase transparency by showing how the voting machines work and how ballots are counted. He said that his office usually is the first stop at Town Hall, and the department also works to effectively serve those who are seeking licenses as well as those who are in crisis and are unsure of where to turn.
During the question-and-answer portion, Ritterbusch pointed out that accessibility should be improved for future meetings. There was no ability to see presentations on the screen or closed captioning services provided.
Capital concerns dominated this portion of the forum. Select Board member Muriel Kramer asked about how the town will be able to cope with potential capital expenditures and the borrowing those would require.
“What can we do in the next five or 10 years to mitigate for the growth and the needs?” she asked.
“You have just defined for our whole team the world of work for the next year to try to synthesize this information to try to put it in scale,” replied Tim O’Leary, the town’s chief financial officer.
He said there are statutory limits for borrowing. Another concern is how the tax impact would affect Hopkinton’s most financially vulnerable residents while still providing quality services for all. Communication during this growth spurt in the town, he said, is key.
Another concern was addressing and projecting future growth in student enrollment and how to accommodate students and their needs. The Elmwood School replacement project, LaBroad said, is an example for how a school may reconfigure grades and build facilities in response to those needs.
Woodman said information would be compiled after the meeting and shared with the community. Questions from the public can be directed to the Town Hall departments or Select Board members, he added.