Getting to Know Chad Whitehead

Chad WhiteheadST. JOHNSBURY - Since late last spring, Chad Whitehead has served as the town manager of St. Johnsbury. Whitehead stepped into the role after several turbulent years for the select board - and the town - that included a lengthy hiring process for the job.


News7/NewsLINC reporter Tyler Cadorette recently visited with Whitehead at his office in the Municipal Building in downtown St. Johnsbury for an in-depth conversation about his duties as town manager and his goals going forward. The following is their discussion, edited for clarity and brevity.

TC: How long have you been on the job as town manager here in St. Johnsbury and what are your thoughts so far?

CW: It's been about five months. I think it was May 18th that was my first day. So far, it's going well. It's busy. There was a mad rush at the beginning, a lot of meetings, a lot of people wanted to get in and say hi. It's slowing up as far as that goes, but work is still piling up and that's good.

TC: What were your roles in St. Johnsbury prior to getting the job?

CW: I worked for an engineering company called Dufresne Group. We primarily did the water, wastewater, and municipal work for the town on several of the capital projects that have been going on since 2008. I was the office manager over there and really the primary point of contact for the town with that company. So we did the development of the projects right straight through construction.

TC: Can you walk us through how you made the transition from that role within the town to where you are now?

CW: I started being at a lot of select board meetings, getting to know people in town. One of our projects, the West Side Project in particular, I really met a lot of the residents in town. I think my presence at the select board meetings with the board itself had a lot to do with it. I was encouraged by a few of the select board members to apply and so when the opportunity came, I continued with that. The transfer from that to being in this office was pretty easy because of my previous involvement.

TC: You talked about the fact that it's a pretty busy schedule at times. What is a normal day like for you?

CW: I drop my son off at school before 8 and so I'm in here right around 8 o'clock, especially when school is going on. There's a lot of checking emails and following up on phone calls throughout the day. Usually there's two or three meetings off-site that I have to go to. We have weekly meetings with the department heads. I've also got period times that the department heads want to meet with me individually outside of our weekly staff meetings to talk about projects or budgets. Probably about, on average, once a week, sometimes as much as three, there's usually an evening meeting, whether it's the development and review board, the select board, or the planning commission.

TC: What would you say are the priority items on your desk at this point in time?

CW: Right now, it's starting to put together the 2015-16 budget. We're doing the preliminary work internally with the department heads to do the budget. Next, once we're happy with it internally, we'll meet with the select board to finalize it and then the select board actually roles that out to the voters for town meeting day. But that's kind of one of the biggest pushes right now. We're wrapping up on a few of the capital projects around town for the summer as construction season is coming to a close, but those are kind of on auto-pilot right now, so not a lot of work to do with those.

TC: Talking a little more specifically, I know a couple of weeks back you were awarded a USDA Rural Development grant for the water treatment system upgrades. Could you talk more about what that grant is all about and how that will impact folks here in St. Johnsbury?

CW: That's actually the sewer treatment plant. The plant basically runs gravity through the system except for the [screw] pumps, so all of the sewage heading down toward the plant hits the pumps first and it lifts it up to the top of the treatment plant and then it gravities through the rest of the plant. It's a gravity system coming in, so there's no off switch, so if the pumps go out, you're in trouble. The existing pumps are 20 years old, they were there in the beginning. They're not going to just fall out completely right yet, but they're getting close. So looking at their wear and age, the town bonded and went up for a vote to have the screw pumps replaced. That bond was passed and then we were able to apply for funding. It's a $1.35 million job total and we received just over $600,000 in grants, so we'll have a loan for the balance. And that project - all of the sewer projects - have to be paid for by the sewer users, so the more grant we have on that, the less cost impacts are on the users.

TC: What's the general timeline for that project?

CW: It takes about three to six months, depending on who it is, to build the pumps themselves and then installation will likely happen next year once spring runoffs stop. So it's going to be mid-summer or early summer next year.

TC: Safe to say the grants will definitely alleviate some of the taxpayer burden, but there is going to be some kind of tax increase to pay for this.

CW: The remainder of the money that is not grant money is a loan. It's a 30-year term, I believe. It's rolled into our budgets. As other improvements are paid for, the actual payment on the treatment plant itself is coming due in a few years. It kind of fluctuates that user requirement to pay that stuff. But you can't do an improvement or project without having some sort of an impact on the rates.

TC: Looking broader, obviously there's been a lot of changeover within the town manager position here in St. Johnsbury over the past couple of years. What are your main goals at this point?

CW: The way we've set up the office is that with my engineering background, I'm looking at the roads, water, sewer, storm, all that kind of stuff. My assistant town manager that I brought in has more economic development background, so he's really looking at the economic growth of the town as far as helping with businesses – helping people who are maybe starting a new business on Railroad Street or anywhere within town. So it's kind of the divide between the two of them. Mine is going to be focusing more on the historical, hardscape of the town and Joe will be picking up the rest of it.

TC: Are there a lot of issues, or any issues, that people have brought to your attention so far in your time on the job that you're looking to address?

CW: There's a lot of small things that come up. You get a phone call about excessive speed on a road or the road needs to be grated or dog poop everywhere. And those are the things that, although they may seem small, they're important to the people that call in. So one of the things that we've been working on trying to do is make sure when someone calls, we get back to them. People, if they don't think you're paying attention to them, they're going to start yelling louder. The town is here to provide a service and we need to be responsive to our taxpayers and to the businesses and residences within the town. It sounds like a small thing, but it takes a lot of time. As far as large projects, there are always large projects coming. Infrastructure wears out and you have to stay ahead of it.

TC: For anybody that is looking to present concerns or might want to touch base with questions, what's the best way for them to do that?

CW: However they want. My email address is up on the town website, same with Joe's. Our phone number is on the website as well (802-748-3926). Or they can stop by. Somebody is here in the office from 8 to 4:30 every day and I'm usually here later. If they see me out on the streets or in the grocery store, feel free to say hi. That's fine too. There's a lot of different ways. The best way is whatever way works best for the person trying to reach out, I suppose.