Starting with this article, “Foundations” is a monthly series examining the fundamentals of local government, talking about how government works and how it impacts people’s lives at …
Starting with this article, “Foundations” is a monthly series examining the fundamentals of local government, talking about how government works and how it impacts people’s lives at the local level. This week, Foundations is taking a look at the office of town supervisor.
SULLIVAN COUNTY—A town supervisor’s primary role is a simple one: they take care of the business of running the town.
Their role isn’t to set policy or to decide how the town should operate—that’s the business of the town board. The role of supervisor is to carry out that policy and to run the town’s day-to-day operations by consensus of what the board wants them to do, says Town of Tusten supervisor Ben Johnson.
That simple portfolio—the day-to-day operations of the town—contains a lot of discrete elements within it.
A supervisor is often a town’s most prominent elected official. More than any other single figure, a supervisor represents the political entity of the town, and their eye is on everything that occurs within it. In other governmental structures, the supervisor is most akin to a mayor.
As a result, a supervisor can serve as a clear point of contact when citizens have questions, comments or concerns for their local elected officials.
“There’s a lot of personal touch,” says Bill Reiber, supervisor for the Town of Thompson. “People call the town supervisor to solve problems.”
These problems might be incredibly personal, set against the broader civic background of a town. But “to the person who can’t pay a $400 propane bill to keep his house warm, the $200,000 fuel bill that we pay to keep the town barn running” is an entirely different thing, said Reiber. “Everybody’s got their challenges.” And a supervisor can help people within the town meet those challenges, whether through the power of their office or by knowing who to call for further help.
It’s important for a supervisor’s office to always answer the phone, says Town of Bethel Supervisor Daniel Sturm. He makes it a point to try and answer all his messages by the end of each week.
A supervisor isn’t just responsible for meeting the needs of the town’s private citizens. He or she is also tasked with working with town officials, making sure the town is fully staffed and properly managed.
Getting good people on the planning board and the zoning board of appeals is very important, says Town of Cochecton Supervisor Gary Maas. Important, too, are the appointments for assessor and code enforcement officer—especially since it can be hard to find people with the training and the credentials required for those roles.
Together with making sure the right people are staffing the town’s offices comes making sure those offices run well. For Reiber, that includes the business of human resources—determining vacation days and sick days, reviewing employee manuals and the like.
A supervisor also has responsibility for all the money that comes in and out of a town.
The supervisor serves as the town’s chief fiscal officer, says Sturm, and in smaller towns like Bethel, they can serve as the budget officer as well.
“I think it’s important for the supervisor to know what’s going in and what’s going out every day,” says Sturm. It’s important to monitor expenditures and revenues to make sure both are maximized, he adds. “Do the best you can for expenses and do the best you can for revenues.”
Even in larger towns like Thompson, where the supervisor has a comptroller to help with carrying out fiscal policy, the supervisor still has final responsibility to monitor what the town is spending.
“In the end, the supervisor is responsible for every dime that goes in or out of the town,” says Reiber. With that responsibility comes oversight: despite the size of Thompson’s bank accounts, he says, he still opens and reads every single bank statement that the town receives.
And in watching the fund balance of the town, says Johnson, the supervisor is making sure that the town has the budget and the funds necessary to get what it needs.
The business of being a supervisor is not purely the business that occurs within the town. There’s also a wide variety of state and federal agencies, each with its own rules for the town to abide by in its day-to-day operations.
“We have a lot of bosses,” says Reiber. “People think towns are autonomous; they’re really not.”
The ever-increasing rules and regulations from a town’s many bosses lead to an ever-increasing amount of paperwork crossing the supervisor’s desk. When he started as supervisor, says Maas, paperwork was almost nothing; now it’s three to four times what it was.
While adhering to the guidelines of oversight bodies can be challenging, supervisors can also look for assistance from structures outside their towns. The county’s supervisors regularly meet as the Sullivan County Association of Supervisors, sharing ideas and discussing issues that are common to all the towns within the county.
And when facing issues that are new to Sullivan County, says Reiber, he can often call up supervisors or county executives from surrounding counties to see how they dealt with those issues, to learn from their experience. “What’s going to drive the Town of Thompson isn’t what’s within the Town of Thompson. It’s what’s happening south [and east] of here—Rockland, Orange, Ulster.”
The supervisor position is one that incumbents can hold for some time. Maas was first elected 12 years ago; Reiber, eight years ago; Sturm, 14 years ago; Johnson is back in the role after previously serving as supervisor for three terms. And many supervisors have previous local government experience prior to stepping into the role, often on their respective town boards.
The depth of experience built up over their time of service is a big help, say several supervisors; it wouldn’t be as easy for someone walking in and starting from scratch.
Experience helps in negotiations with state and federal agencies, says Sturm, and in navigating those agencies’ requirements for funding. “If you need something, you have to know who to call.”
Knowing who to call is a benefit of experience that Reiber also highlights. In addition, he says, a long history in local government can help when long-standing issues become matters of present concern. “It’s a little easier for me because I can remember deals or contracts we signed 25 years ago… that’s an advantage of a long-term public servant.”
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