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Council encouraged to narrow focus

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

After just four days on the job, Pulaski’s interim town manager is encouraging town officials to focus on completion of a few priority projects before moving on to new ones.

“I have found in my own experience — and what I think you have here — is if you have too many things going at the same time you can’t get any of them done well. I think it’s important for everyone’s benefit to pick two or three (priorities) and then go to the next set,” Darlene Burcham said Tuesday night in her first report to Pulaski Town Council.

Burcham stepped into her new position July 1 — the day after former Town Manager Shawn Utt left for a new job as Smyth County administrator. Her services are provided through contract with The Berkley Group, an executive management group.

Since joining the town Burcham said she read about a dozen documents “trying to understand some of the challenges we have.” She also met with each council member for an hour or more to hear their perspectives and ideas on what needs to be accomplished in the next three to four months.

“We can’t do everything in three to four months. We can’t even do it in three to four years,” she said. “But my hope is that during the time I’m here I can — with your help — develop some plans that demonstrate your priorities; and have us actually working on priorities that get accomplished. Again, recognizing you can’t do everything for everybody at the same time.”

Burcham said she already has plans to dedicate discussion at future work sessions to specific topics of importance. For example, at the July 21 work session she intends to devote discussion “almost exclusively to economic development.”

As of Tuesday, Burcham also had met with town staff and made changes to how they compile reports.

“You will see my first new version of the weekly report this Friday and I’m hoping you will be able to see what is going on day in and day out with your staff,” she told council. “They’re doing lots of things that I think you may not be aware of. I think it’s important that you and the public understand what those challenges are.”

Due to overspending that resulted in the need of modifications to the 2019-2020 budget, Burcham said she has spoken with the finance director and they are working to implement changes so budget expenditures are accounted for in advance of the expenditure rather than afterward.

She said she hopes to soon have a tentative year-end report available for council so “we know where we stand.”

Staff also is looking into reopening the drive up window in the finance department at the municipal building. Burcham said the department’s recent use of a former bank building to wait on the public due to COVID-19 distancing restrictions was “greeted with a lot of enthusiasm,” so she wonders why the municipal building window isn’t being used.

With regards to the pandemic, Burcham says she also is investigating how Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds might be available to assist the town in recovery.

Burcham also noted a few town citizens were “brave enough to come in and talk with me” during her first week on the job. She stressed that she is always “more than willing” to meet with any citizen as long as her schedule allows time. “That’s the way I learn about the community,” she noted.

In her first four days, Burcham says, she also took a tour of some of the problem areas in town. She plans to soon issue a request for proposal for grant writing assistance and present the responses to council. The current contract is about to expire and she believes continued grant writing is “critical to this organization.”

She also has evaluated current open positions within the town. She hopes to have recommendations at the July 21 work session regarding “some critical needs we have. Not filling every position, but some we have to get the right people in for follow-up on projects we have.”

Burcham has been invited to participate with other managers in the New River Valley Planning District Commission on projects of regional importance, including issues surrounding COVID-19. She says she is a believer in the benefits of regional and local cooperation.

She plans to meet with County Administrator Jonathan Sweet soon to see how the town and county can work together moving forward — particularly in drawing retail business to town.

“We are one of the key retail areas for this county and when the town is able to produce more revenue, the county gets additional revenue. So, we’re going to be trying to work with them very closely to see that recruitment of businesses for our community is done very quickly,” she told council. “We do have some incentives; I’m pleased to say. We need to get those out and make you all more knowledgeable of them, as well as the community.”

In summation, she said, “We’re working hard to see what is here that needs to be done. I’m pleased to see there is a good foundation. We just need to work a little bit harder, maybe work a little bit differently, and better manage how we’re trying to maneuver through all of these various grants.”

She was supposed to have a conference call Thursday with a key representative of Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) programs. She reminded council that how the town performs on the grant programs and maintaining a good relationship with them is critical to future success in obtaining state and federal grants.

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