Small Town Connecticut Faces the Limits of Volunteerism

Old Lyme Memorial Town Hall


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IN THE REGION — A government of volunteers is hard to maintain. Recruiting enough town residents to fill boards, committees, commissions, emergency medical services and fire departments has become increasingly difficult as more individuals commute further to work, towns lose population and the demands on local government from the state and federal levels increase.

According to elected officials in Old Saybrook, Essex and Old Lyme, some years there are enough volunteers walking in the doors at town hall and others commissions are half-filled. How towns deal with the fluctuating nature of volunteers, however, is very different.

Recruitment, recruitment, recruitment

“Whenever I speak I say we are a government of volunteers, and volunteers make most of the decisions in this town,” said Carl Fortuna, First Selectman in Old Saybrook. “I’m always actively searching for volunteers. Not the same old volunteers, not the people who have been perpetually involved even though that’s not a bad thing, I’m just always trying to get new people involved.”

In Old Saybrook, Fortuna said he is constantly looking for people to fill positions, lining up backups and replacements and encouraging residents to get involved whether he meets them at a bar or on the golf course.

“You need to be active and somewhat aggressive about it,” he said. “You need to always talk about it.”

“I belong to a golf club so I met people and convinced them to volunteer there, two of them serve on my pension board right now,” Fortuna said. The finance director — she’s the wife of another friend he met golfing.

“You’re not going to have boards full of people in their 30s because of the demographics, but also those people don’t have time,” Fortuna said. He focuses on the wealth of talent in the retired populations of the coastal town. “We have so many people in their 50s and 60s who had very successful careers and they are smart, driven and just want to do the right thing.”

From volunteers to professionals

Other towns, like Essex, have dealt with the ebb and flow of volunteers by gradually changing the structure of town government, shutting down committees and hiring staff instead of relying on volunteers.

In the eight years since Norm Needleman became First Selectman of Essex, the town government has turned to more professional staff, with volunteer advisory groups.

“We used to have a sanitary waste commission. I eliminated it because the guy who runs the landfill reports to me,” Needleman said. “I can’t have eight employees in town reporting to volunteers. We are moving from totally a government by volunteers to volunteer and a more professional approach. It eliminates risk.”

The process of transitioning volunteers to hired employees has increased Essex’s budget by less than $100,000, according to Needleman.

“The role has shifted to less hands-on for volunteers,” Needleman said. “For example, a planning commission member who owned a local town contracting business used to spend one day a week in town hall, as he was ready to wind down he suggested we hire a planner to keep up with the growing work.”

Needleman said that forms, applications and just more paperwork required by the state and federal government is very difficult for volunteers to keep pace with.

“It is the job of municipal leaders to not favor hired versus volunteers, but to recognize and do what you can to maintain volunteers and at the same time make sure that the towns are adequately staffed to do what they have to do.”

The area where this is most needed is public safety. Small towns across southeastern Connecticut have rely on volunteer fire departments and emergency medical care.

“Public safety is the bigger issue and more of a challenge,” Needleman said. “That service relied on people that live and worked in town. That is much less common today and daytime calls are problematic.”

In Essex the ambulance drivers are now being paid. The same is true in Old Lyme, where more than 20 years ago the department began paying two emergency medical staff to work during the day, said Rob McCarthy, who has been the president of the Old Lyme Fire Department for the last six years.

Old Lyme still relies on a completely volunteer Firefighting force, but the town uses incentive programs to aid in recruitment and retention.

“For people who have earned 50 points in a year, the town makes a contribution to an account in their name which becomes available to them upon retirement at age 65,” McCarthy said. Points are based on attendance at meetings, events, and additional training. The department also offers a $1,000 tax abatement for all volunteers.

“We’ve gone through periods, like a few years ago, when we didn’t have too many new people walking in the doors,” McCarthy said. “That’s when we start wondering what else we can do for recruitment efforts.”

As of yet, Old Lyme hasn’t needed to hire any paid firefighters, but McCarthy said if the need arose, they would look to hiring a firefighter for the daytime shift, when more and more volunteers are working out of town.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Even if it isn’t possible to replace volunteers with employees, towns are looking to close committees that are unnecessary or merge committees and commissions that are understaffed.

And that tactic will be employed in Old Lyme this year. The Solid Waste and Recycling Committee will likely be merging into the Conservation Commission at some point in the coming months

“Both the Conservation Commission and the Recycling Committee only have three members,” said Bonnie Reemsnyder, first selectwoman of Old Lyme. And both are officially supposed to have five. In addition to that, “the Solid Waste and Recycling committee was formed by the board of selectman and is not necessarily a committee that would continue forever.”

The Solid Waste and Recycling committee was formed three years ago when the town was encouraged to increase recycling by the state. The committee was charged with updating the town’s solid waste ordinance. That job is complete, so closing the committee, but retaining the use of its volunteers, makes sense to Reemsnyder.

“Towns in general have more going on today,” Reemsnyder said. “We have more task forces, committees, sub committees. Every time you create a committee you might lose someone from another committee.”

Reemsnyder said she pitched the idea of merging the committee and commission, and the idea was met with enthusiasm.

“We probably started talking about it six months ago just as a way to have more ability to get things done with more people,” said Brenda Moriarity, a member of the Solid Waste and Recycling commission. “It’s been over a year that we haven’t had all five positions filled. Since we have similar focuses to the Conservation Commission we can work together.”

Although Solid Waste and Recycling may seem like an odd fit with the Conservation Commission, both groups have shifted their focus to sustainability over the past couple years. Whether it’s through properly recycling all plastics or discussing land usage and preservation, it’s all “how you can make less of a carbon footprint,” Moriarity said.