When Don Turner was appointed acting town manager this spring, he inherited an operation with numerous vacancies.
Five months later, he’s filled two of the town’s most vital positions and enacted the first part of a succession plan to step down as Milton’s fire and rescue chief by year’s end.
Former selectman John Bartlett now fills the role of director of administration and human resources, and Jessica Morris was named finance director. Both started on July 17.
Turner tapped Taylor Yeates as the new public safety director, who will oversee strategic planning for fire, rescue and, eventually, police. He officially starts August 21.
The move is cost-neutral, splitting Turner’s $54,000 fire and rescue chief salary between Yeates’ salary ($25,000), chiefs’ stipends ($16,000) and additional money ($13,000) for an administrative assistant.
“We want tax dollars – which are scarce, and we all know people are struggling to live – to get the biggest bang for their buck,” Turner said. “We’re trying to figure out how we get this position to be more public, more a part of the day to day operation.”
Yeates, who has served as both president of Richmond Rescue and as Milton Rescue’s training coordinator since 2014, will administer fire and rescue’s budgets, execute the departments’ capital plans and develop long-term plans that address changing legislation and technology in emergency services.
He’ll move up to full time and absorb these projects for police after Chief Brett Van Noordt retires.
“The volunteers can focus on saving lives,” Yeates said. “The police can focus on policing instead of budgeting and spreadsheets.”
Yeates has experience in this, his résumé shows: As CEO for Richmond Rescue, he’s involved in budgeting and emergency planning. He’s also an advanced emergency medical technician.
In Milton, he looks forward to updating the town’s emergency operations plan and following the conversation on regionalized dispatch services, he said.
In the meantime, fire and rescue membership will begin drawing up recommendations for their chiefs. Turner expects assistant rescue chief Rod Moore and assistant fire chief Chris Poirier’s names will rise to the top.
For his part, Turner still hasn’t officially signed a contract as Milton’s next manager. He was the sole candidate to emerge from the selectboard’s search and has acted in the role since late April.
Turner said the delay is self-inflicted, as he’s been sorting out fire and rescue leadership to replace himself after 13 and 10 years in those roles, respectively.
“I do have to give up a lot of stuff – stuff that I deeply care about, stuff that I want to do – so I do want to protect myself in there,” he said. “The board could all change in March, and it could be a whole different deal.”
Turner, the Vermont House minority leader, has also said he won’t seek reelection after his legislative term ends in January 2019.
Turner thinks he and his team have accomplished much in the last three months, notably hiring Bartlett and Morris.
Bartlett is no stranger to the town offices, having served as a selectman for six years before he resigned his seat prior to Town Meeting this March. He cited his daily 70-mile round-trip commute to his previous job in Enosburg as a factor in stepping down a year early.
But Bartlett took notice when the director of administration and HR position became vacant in February. His résumé shows more than 20 years of managing office operations in the private sector, including HR.
His new job description was slightly tweaked, too, to prevent the position from becoming a catchall, as it did when Erik Wells filled the post, Turner said.
“It’s too bad Erik ended up with all that stuff piled on him,” he said, referring to initiatives more suited to public works that Wells ended up leading. “We can’t let that happen, because it will drive people out of here again.”
Turner also sees Bartlett’s position as a recruiter, a role former town manager Donna Barlow Casey suggested be done by a selectboard-appointed taskforce that was ultimately never formed.
“Our employees are in the same place they were. We now have an HR person who’s going to be focused on taking care of our employees,” Turner said. “We’re not relying on committees to be potentially formed one day; we’re going to get it done.”
Turner thinks this focus could retain staff and build camaraderie and morale that he and outgoing finance director Sarah Macy said in May was lacking.
Then, Turner said the selectboard’s reputation of being “very hard to work for” was a contributing factor in town turnover: In the last six years, every department head has left – some being replaced up to three times – excepting emergency services and recreation.
But he thinks the board has started to loosen the reins, particularly evident in its support of a new purchasing policy that gives staff more control over department spending before needing board approval.
“They’re supporting the process,” Bartlett said. “It puts a little more onus on us to deliver.”
At Monday’s selectboard meeting, members also OK’d Morris’ first effort to bring more transparency to her typically behind-the-scenes finance department: She designed a two-sided handout that explains exactly how Miltonians’ tax dollars are spent. It will be inserted in tax bills that go out this month.
The effort goes along with Morris’ main goal to create solid financial controls that result in clean annual audits, which she called “good report cards” that show town staff are responsible stewards of taxpayer money.
Though she’s never worked in government, Morris has years of finance experience, spending the last seven as controller at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. Before that, she served as business manager/treasurer of the Northwest Vermont Solid Waste Management District.
Morris applied for the position a year ago, losing out to Macy, but kept an interest in serving her town. She grew up in Colchester and has lived in Milton for four years. Her husband serves on the fire department, and her son is set to start school in Milton this fall.
“To have the opportunity to make a difference in the town where I live, where I’m a taxpayer, and do a job that I love at the same time – this is my dream job,” she said.
Morris’ exact duties are still in limbo, however, until the town and school district can agree on a financial services arrangement. As such, the fiscal assistant position is currently left vacant, leaving Morris to pick up those extra duties.
For Turner, challenges like these are a part of doing business, but he says his team is already looking forward, planning for retirements like Chief Van Noordt’s and eventually, assistant town clerk Paulette LaFond’s.
He still has roles to fill, namely a newly created public works director position and, soon, planning director. Jake Hemmerick, who filled that role for 4.5 years, gave his notice last Friday with a planned Sept. 13 exit. Turner is also anticipating a stormwater management position to emerge from the state’s ramped up water protection effort.
Bartlett summarized the recent happenings as a “sea change” that will help Turner complete his mission to “get stuff done,” which has become a motto among town staff.
“Everything here has been a team effort,” Turner said. “It’s amazing how people have come together to help out.”