In his first few weeks as new City Manager, George Proakis has been meeting people and getting familiar with how things work in Watertown, but he does have a few items he knows will be on his plate during his first year on the job.
Proakis sat down with Watertown News during his second week in his new job and shared some of his thoughts about projects he expects to take on early in his time in town. This is the second of two stories on the City’s new chief executive. Read the first story here.
He has “probably 10 other things” that he has been thinking about working on, but two things rose to the top.
“I am formulating some ideas. The point where I am going to be able to share more is probably a little bit further (down the road), but the one thing I will say I will hit the ground running with — I’ll say two things — that I think I can say with confidence,” Proakis said.
The first, he said, is completing the update of the Comprehensive Plan.
“We are doing a Comprehensive Plan process, which is very exciting,” Proakis said. “I want to work with the folks at Planning to make sure that it is successful, it’s finished, and it reflects the community’s values.”
The other project Proakis plans to work on soon is the recently adopted Climate & Energy Plan.
“We have a very ambitious Climate Plan that probably is a regional leader, as far as I see it. It’s well written, it’s thoughtful, it addresses climate impacts, resiliency, and adaptation — all of these issues of climate in one place,” Proakis said. “There are a number of things that say they are short-term implementation steps and I am reading those very carefully to see where we can start, what can we do now that we have actually finished the document, what can we do to implement that document.”
Learning About Watertown
Another immediate task will be starting the annual city budget process. This traditionally kicks off with the preliminary budget presentation to the City Council in October.
Proakis comes to Watertown after leading Somerville’s Office of Strategic Planning & Community Development for more than 9 years, so he has been involved in municipal budgeting, but not so intimately.
“I wasn’t the person making the key decisions. That’s a new experience,” Proakis said. “But I feel like between the Council and the guidances they provide and the assistance from the auditing staff — we have a great staff here to understand where are tax numbers are, where our new growth numbers are, how much we can put in a five year capital plan within the limitations for what we are allowed to borrow for. I have that available to me.”
Proakis spent his first week getting the lay of the land for Watertown’s government, and much of that was spent with City Auditor, and former interim City Manager, Tom Tracy.
“I am focusing on learning all of that, understanding all of that and really appreciating how the budget works …” Proakis said. “The next step is how to be a good financial manager of the system going forward.”
He wants to see where Watertown is making investments and spending public tax dollars, where the City is doing well, and where there are opportunities.
“It’s really based on what are the expectations of the community that may not yet be met by the government that they expect the government to meet,” Proakis said. “How do we provide those resources to do that in those circumstances? Hopefully, our new growth allows us the ability to do that, and so far it has.”
As he comes aboard, Proakis finds some key positions needing to be filled.
“Police Chief, Fire Chief, Council on Aging director — those are the immediate ones,” Proakis said. “Also, a Deputy City Manager.”
Another key position will soon be vacant when Tracy retires as City Auditor this fall.
“The auditor is the Council’s hire, but to the extent that it impacts my life the hire there is very important,” Proakis said. “And the transition with Tom Tracy is so important because Tom holds so much of the institutional knowledge of the finance side of business here. I want to continue to work with him through that transition.”
While he did not bring up transportation, one of Somerville’s successes in recent years was the opening of the MBTA’s Green Line extension to that city. When asked about improving public transportation Proakis said he is not sure that is something that could happen in Watertown, but there are other steps that can be taken.
The Green Line project was part of a deal that Somerville struck with the state in association with the Big Dig project. It was mitigation for air quality impacts from the project, Proakis said, and was promised to open in 2011. It finally opened in 2021.
Creating a rail line is a long-term project.
“I don’t know if as a City Manager on my eighth day I can say whether or not in Watertown that is doable short of advocating for the next $2 billion transit extension,” Proakis said. “That is intriguing but that is a 25 year project realistically. It takes 25 years from an idea to when it opens. Not that I shy away from 25 year projects, it’s just that you have to acknowledge what they are.”
Local government is limited in what it can do to improve public transit, but Proakis has seen some ways to speed up buses.
“The one thing you can do, and I will say this with a caveat, is you have to be very careful about the tradeoffs in doing it,” Proakis said.
When buses run along local roadways, cities can do things like installing traffic signals that turn green when buses approach, or even have dedicated bus lanes. Watertown has started installing some of the “smart traffic lights,” and there are short stretches where buses get priority on Mt. Auburn Street.
Proakis is not sure if Watertown’s roadways would support a bus lane, like they did in Somerville on a roadway that was 150 feet wide, but he has seen the improvement.
“Buses on that street run a lot faster to where they are going to than they were before,” Proakis said.
On of Proakis’ first public appearances will be at his first City Council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. The meeting will be at 7 p.m. in City Hall.