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Weekly Review: “Please excuse our appearance;” Weekday Storm Stress Factor

By Glenn E. Aho

Auburn City Manager

Budget cuts and a heavy tax burden have forced Auburn’s hand to renovate nearly everything we do. The renovation has taken place in several phases.

For two years in a row, the City of Auburn has undergone a labor reduction, which could be considered as the first phase. This reduction has saved taxpayers over $857,000 per year in wages and benefits. But that’s not the entire cost. There are those who paid a cost when they lost their jobs, and then the cost to our taxpayers as their services have been reduced, eliminated or changed.

Our employees have also paid a cost in terms of added work, which only reminds us we need to work smarter, not harder.

If the labor reduction was “Phase I,” then Phase II has been the organizational changes we’ve had to make by reclassifying all departments into one of three departments: public safety, public services and public administration. Auburn’s departmental organization now resembles that of a private company—such as a bank—more so than a traditional government. This organizational change was necessary so resources and staff could be pooled together.

Phase III of Auburn’s renovation would definitely be our use of innovative technology. Originally this was intended to be Phase I: through the use of innovative technology, the city would be able to reduce labor. However, when the economy turned for the worse, what should have been the last phase—the labor reduction—then became the first phase.

Working through these phases would definitely be easier if it were possible to be “Closed for Renovations.” That’s not possible, so we make our adjustments while still “Open for Business.” As with any renovation project that is ongoing, there’s usually an accompanying sign that asks to “Please excuse our appearance while we are under renovation.”

In the meantime, we continue to adjust to the changes we’ve had to make and continue to make progress. We’re certainly not perfect but our commitment is to continued improvement.

Problem Management. “Feed a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he eats for a life time.” This adage explains that through learning, self-sufficiency is possible. This is the same approach the city takes toward complaints that the public or the City Council brings to our attention.

If we simply respond by chasing down every complaint without ever learning why something is going wrong, we’ll never fix the problem once and for all. For example, if an employee is doing something wrong, we need to find out why the employee is doing it wrong instead of focusing on the actual event. If we don’t find out why, the employee is destined to continue making the same mistake over and over.

The process I’ve just outlined is how Problem Management works; it is also how the city responds to citizens’ complaints. Why must it be this way? Consider the definition of insanity: to do the same thing over and over but expect different results each time. Problem Management requires patience because it’s not always clear why something continues to go wrong, and the first attempt at solving the problem doesn’t always work.

If having patience is key to Problem Management, so too is collecting data. This is why using innovative technology to help collect data is important. Equally important is to have continuous feedback about our services.

Improving the city and its services happens every day, but not always as fast as people would like. To those I would respond by saying it took decades for local government to become what it is: to get it where we want it to be will not happen overnight. What’s important is that we continually make progress, trying new solutions and evaluating the results. As Dale Carnegie said, “The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way.”

Fire Engines to Remain in Quarters. It’s the collective values, beliefs and attitudes of employees that represent the organizational culture of an organization. When values, beliefs and attitudes are aligned, it’s easier to progress the organization forward toward productivity and excellence.

For example, developing a culture of safety requires employees value, believe and posses a positive attitude of safety and safety behavior. The City of Auburn’s corporate culture is to provide “Superior Services at an Affordable Cost”—regardless of what we do, we use this culture to manage or measure our values, beliefs, attitudes and even our behaviors.

With the economy as it is and resources scarce, the city needs to adjust its values and beliefs with regard to how city equipment is used. Our residents are feeling the economic pinch and have had to cut back. Many of our residents believe the city should do the same. Here is an example of how the city is adjusting its culture as it relates to our values, beliefs and attitudes toward the use of city’s fire equipment.

The engines and tower truck will no longer be utilized to get groceries or supplies. Instead, a utility pickup or car will be used.

The engines and tower will remain in quarters unless dispatched to a call, need to be used for training or are in need of maintenance.

The engines and tower will be used for fewer, if any, public relations events.

The department will no longer be conducting life safety inspections. Presently there are up to four people who travel with the engine while conducting inspections, which is not entirely an efficient use of personnel or equipment. This function will now be the responsibility of Planning and Permitting, though exactly how is still being worked out.

These changes in values, beliefs, and attitudes of city staff reflect an organizational culture change. For some the change will be easy; for others, not as much. It’s instinctual for many city staff to do as much as possible for the public or be available whenever for the public.

As resources become fewer, tough decisions will need to be made like the ones we’ve made above. It’s not that we think these decisions will improve our services, but they will make them more affordable. Of course, regardless of how our services change, we will always do our best.

The Weekday Storm Stress Factor. For the past decade, most snowstorms have curiously fallen on weekends, when overtime costs skyrocket—if I didn’t know any better, I might have thought that Mother Nature had union membership.  However, high overtime from weekend storms is nothing compared to this winter’s high anxiety resulting from weekday storms.

Most people have no choice but to venture out during the weekday storm on roads that are snow covered. Add the normal weekday stress of people’s lives and voila! It’s a recipe for the “perfect storm”—so to speak. Icy roads, delayed commuting times, snow-filled driveways, missed meetings or daycare closures all contribute to the weekday storm stress factor. The stressful weekday storm is less expensive for the city, but it generates many more complaints and even evokes anger from some.

Two years ago we had six storms; last year we had 10; this year we’ve already had 12, and winter isn’t over. Each storm cost has averaged about $30,000. For the month of February, the number of storms has doubled—taxing our ability to keep up with expectations. This winter alone plow equipment has been driven over 33,000 miles over Auburn roads.

Once the storms are over and the equipment repaired, crews return to clean snow as quickly as possible during the day. We try to limit cleaning snow at night as it easily can cost the city $10,000 each night. This winter alone we’ve cleaned snow in New Auburn 14 times.

Aside from the challenges Mother Nature has tossed our way, we’ve also been undergoing a managerial change at Public Works that will serve our citizens better in the long run. It would have been nice to have a mild winter to make these changes, but that’s beyond our control.

The plowing prioritization system has raised the ire of many citizens who think their road should be a higher priority, and I totally understand. However, the priority system didn’t change how we plow. It only put a name or label to what we’ve always done.

Part of becoming more efficient is standardizing operations. We reviewed what we’ve always done, then labeled it with priority routing so that every driver would plow the same way. It’s more efficient that way.

With new management systems in place, we’re much better suited for evaluating our winter plowing programs and implementing changes or solutions to improve our overall performance. The Auburn Public Works has been doing a good job despite the challenges they’ve had to overcome.

Residents Block Sidewalks with Snow. Courtesy letters will soon be mailed to residents who have been plowing snow either across the street or plowing snow into the sidewalk, thus blocking the walk. When residents block their sidewalks, it is not only tough on the city’s equipment, it slows the entire process of plowing sidewalks—nixing our productivity and adding to the cost of providing services.

As equipment operators travel throughout the city, they will radio to Public Works dispatch those addresses where snow is being plowed across the street or sidewalks are being blocked. If you receive a letter, allow me to thank you in advance for doing what you can to help reduce our costs of doing business.

Why is it a good thing about when the city saves money? The savings or reduced costs are passed right back to our taxpayers or helps to lower the property tax burden.

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