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Cost-cutting, efficiency at center of Lakewood’s restructured administration plan

LAKEWOOD – The village of Lakewood combined three key administrative positions into one new role in an effort to save money and better serve the village’s 4,000 residents.

Julie Heather Meister only has been working as the village’s chief administrative officer since July 25, but she has been at the forefront of changes occurring within the office.

And she loves it.

“I’ve got a challenge ahead of me, but this is what I’m good at,” Meister said. “And I’m dying to do this work.”

The Village Board recently made several changes to ordinances that restructure the village’s administration, including firing Deputy Village Manager Shannon Andrews and eliminating both the village manager and finance director positions.

Before cutting the positions, the Village Board also approved entering a consulting agreement with Meister to assess the current structure of the village administration and to recommend a better option moving forward.

“In the past, I always heard, ‘That’s not how governments do things,’ ” Village President Paul Serwatka said. “As long as there were people worse than us and less efficient than us, we would measure our excellence based on how bad everyone else was, but I wanted to get away from the typical mindset of being a simple government.”

Under the old structure, Lakewood was paying more than $400,000 for four administrative positions that included the police chief, finance director, village manager and deputy village manager, and it allowed the village manager – not the Village Board – to hold much of the authority when it came to making decisions for the village.

The village manager, who had a receptionist and administrative assistant, also had the discretion to fire, hire and approve policies of the police chief – responsibilities that have been given back to the board. Meanwhile, the deputy village manager – who between September and April filled in as interim village manager – oversaw the village’s utilities and Public Works Department heads.

Serwatka and other trustees wanted to take away power from a single administrator and put it back in the hands of the village’s officials elected to serve the residents.

“It comes down to efficiency and control in its simplest form,” Serwatka said.

In Meister’s proposed new plan, the responsibilities of the village manager, the deputy village manager and finance directors were consolidated into a chief administrative officer position that answers to the village president and trustees.

The finance director, a position that had been vacant for months, previously was paid $75 an hour to work part time for the village. The village had budgeted about $90,000 for the position, but after not receiving enough qualified applicants for the position, determined it would cost about $110,000 to find the right person for the job.

The previous village manager made $135,000, village documents show.

Now the chief administrative officer makes $157,700 in salary plus benefits to handle both the finances and administrative duties as a “working manager” who sits among the staff without a private office and regularly is available to residents, Meister said.

“It just made sense,” Meister said of the changes.

Other changes included eliminating the part-time opening for a building inspector and adding a building and ordinance manager for $50,000 with more responsibilities.

The village receptionist now serves as the police records clerk with the same salary, splitting her time between both roles. Meister said she also found staff members either had been underused or were delegated to do work they were not trained or prepared to do.

Lakewood needs to take better care of property and facilities it owns around the area, and has added new members to the maintenance department to help the village upkeep its properties, Meister said.

“I call it a maintenance debt,” Meister said. “I think we’ve really fallen behind on what we own.”

When comparing the changes in Lakewood, Serwatka said there really isn’t a template because of the experimental nature of the new structure.

Crystal Lake pays about $215,000 in annual wages for its city manager and another $154,000 for its deputy manager/finance director, according to city documents, but the city serves more than 10 times the number of residents. Cary also spends about $220,000 in annual wages for the same positions, serving about 18,000 residents, village documents show.

Fox River Grove, however, spends about $135,000 on its village administrator and $83,000 on its treasurer and finance manager to serve a slightly larger population than Lakewood, according to village documents.

“I want to be at the forefront, where everyone starts looking and saying, ‘Look what Lakewood did,’ ” Serwatka said.

Meister is a 45-year-old certified public accountant, internal auditor, fraud examiner and has worked with Fortune 500 companies for years – and yet she wanted something that was more fulfilling, even if it meant taking a serious pay cut.

When Meister brought her restructuring plan to the board and was brought on temporarily for the chief administrative position, she gave back nearly $11,000 she earned through her consulting deal and asked for it to be used to assist flooding victims.

“I was making good money – it just wasn’t me,” Meister said.

She and Trustee Richard Ritchie also have spent time renovating the former village manager’s private office – Meister works from a large cubicle among the rest of the staff – to become a more professional conference room.

One of the first uses for the new community conference room will be for the residential stormwater task force, which will brainstorm and discuss potential solutions for helping Lakewood residents with flooding problems that intensified earlier this summer.

Meister is thinking about calling the room the kitchen table, partly because the conference table quite literally is a large wooden kitchen table from her home. The other reason is because that kitchen table is where she had one of her first conversations with Serwatka when he was campaigning against tax increment financing districts.

Meister said she wants residents to feel welcome and heard, which is why she includes her personal cellphone number on her business card.

“I’m not an executive in an ivory tower that doesn’t want to talk to a resident,” Meister said. “I tell people to call me any time. I’m your neighbor. If we need to do something right away, call me.”

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