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State innovation grants boost local projects

A plan enabling residents to track spending by their local governments is among eight initiatives benefiting area communities recently chosen to receive state support.

State officials awarded 27 grants totaling $2.25 million under its Community Innovation Challenge Grant Program, which is designed to provide incentives and support innovative regionalization and other cost-saving initiatives.

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A group of five communities led by Woburn and including Chelsea, Revere, Brookline, and Chicopee will receive $120,000 to establish the Municipal Open Checkbook System, aimed at making expenditures easily accessible and transparent for residents via municipal websites.

The initiative is modeled after the state Open Checkbook  program launched last year, which allows the public to search details of state spending.

“I think it’s a great thing for cities and towns to be offering the ability of a resident to look into this information without having to jump through hoops to get it,” said Woburn Mayor Scott D. Galvin.

He said the five communities will use a common computer server but display their own information on their websites. Once the system is place, other communities will be able to join.

The Manchester Essex Regional School District was awarded $73,000to expand services to students with dyslexia and other language and learning-based disabilities.

The district initiated the program last year for fourth- and fifth-graders at Manchester Memorial Elementary School through a previous $109,000 grant. It now plans to extend the service to sixth-graders at the regional middle school next fall, according to Allison Collins, director of student services.

The program, which uses intensive small group instruction, is a money-saver because fewer students need out-of-district placement.

“We want to be able to provide a high quality education for all our students,” said Pamela Beaudoin, the Manchester Essex superintendent. “Our ultimate goal is to allow kids to stay here and receive special education services.”

Four communities led by Somerville and also including Revere, Chicopee, and Fitchburg plan to develop a School StatNet pilot program through a $38,326 grant.

The initiative is modeled after the “Stat” or data-driven performance management system some cities and towns use to deliver their services more efficiently. Somerville was the first Massachusetts community to employ the system, when it introduced SomerStat in 2004.  

“We are excited about the potential for this process to improve student learning through smarter use of our available resources,” said Vincent McKay, Somerville’s assistant superintendent.

Nine area communities plan to create a regional storm water collaborative through a $98,000 grant they received with the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments. The council is the lead entity for the grant benefiting Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut, Dunstable, Lowell, Pepperell, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, and Westford.  

Beverly Woods, executive director of the council, said the collaborative will help the communities reduce the costs they all face in complying with new federal rules governing the management of their storm water systems.

In particular, they plan to make joint equipment purchases, and develop a common public outreach effort to inform residents how they can contribute to improving water quality through better storm water management.

Hamilton, Wenham, and the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District were awarded $30,000 to develop a plan to create a regional public works department to serve the two towns and the school district.

Wenham town administrator Mark Andrews, whose town was the lead recipient of the grant, said the funding would pay to hire the University of Massachusetts at Boston’s Collins Center to help determine the many steps needed to merge the public works operations.

“I’m very happy to move this process forward to get the best services for our school district and for the towns, and to work in a very cooperative way,” he said.

Malden was awarded $27,780 to develop a 311 Call Center, a program that allows residents to dial “311” to report problems to city departments or seek information.

An innovative feature to the program is that it will be staffed by city employees who had been out on workers’ compensation.

“We will provide a way for those who have been disabled on their job while working for the city to return to work with a light duty option of being a 311 operator,” Mayor Gary Christenson said by e-mail.

Also innovative, he said, is that the call center would be a virtual one, with the operators working in various departments, assisted when needed by other employees from those offices.

The Merrimack Valley Planning Commission   and eight cities and towns were jointly awarded $80,000 to develop a shared computerized system for citizens to report and track public works related problems, and a 311 Call Center to handle requests for information and services relating to their municipal departments.

The grant came in at $300,000 below the request, so the program will require local matching funds. Five of the communities — Amesbury, Andover, Haverhill, Newburyport, and North Andover – have pledged funds, so the program will begin with them, according to Dennis DiZoglio, executive director of the commission, which is the lead entity on the grant.

He said the three other communities – Lawrence, Methuen, and Salisbury – and potentially other communities – could opt to join at a later date.

The participants and Essex Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr. are pursuing a plan to have the 311 call operators work out of the regional emergency dispatch center that is set to open this spring on the grounds of the Essex County Correctional Facility in Middleton.  

A group of seven communities led by Acton and including Westford will receive $60,000 to develop a regional transportation management association. The nonprofit public/private partnership would seek to develop and implement transportation services for residents of the communities.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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