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Weekly Review: City vehicles, Christmas trees and operational inefficiencies

By Glenn E. Aho

Auburn City Manager

Earlier this month the New York Times printed an article titled, “Top 10 Reasons Small Businesses Fail.” It was sobering that six of the 10 reasons could be said of how local government functions and continues to “function” in spite its private-sector counterpart failing.

The article begged the question: What is a failed or a successful local government? The top 10 reasons for small business failures included poor accounting, poor management, poor operational inefficiencies and poor planning, to name a few. Since local government provides public service, and the public’s expectations, needs and wants are always changing, it could be argued a “failed” local government is one that is non-responsive and does what’s always been done, regardless of what’s changed.

Local government is not immune from poor business practices, only the public’s knowledge of those poor practices, or so it seems. To really identify what reasons for “failure” might exist in local government, we need to look beneath the waterline to expose the problems.

Enough has changed in this nation to warrant near-wholesale changes in government at all levels—even so, much has remained the same. Residents need to ask tough questions of their local government: “What are you doing differently today as compared to a year ago? Before the economy declined? Since the last TABOR initiative? Since the last time higher fiscal accountability was called for?”

Has enough changed so that local government has gained the public’s confidence and trust, or is there more to do?

In contrast, a successful government is one that is responsive to public’s changing needs and wants. In Auburn, we’ve asked all the tough questions, listened to the public’s pleas for a reduced tax burden and looked beneath the waterline—deep beneath the waterline.

What we’ve found is that Auburn had to do things differently, had to make changes and had to produce results. As the New York Times author wrote of the failed small business owners: “If the owners really knew what they were doing wrong, they might have been able to fix the problem. Often, it’s simply a matter of denial or of not knowing what you don’t know.”

Because Auburn has asked the tough questions, we did identify what we’re doing wrong, and we’ve taken steps to improve our local government. It all started when the city’s senior management staff made a commitment to “Excellence in Governance,” which means Auburn’s staff are assuming responsibility to make enough changes to produce the results people want, which is ultimately a reduced property tax burden, accountability and trust.

Operational Inefficiencies. Instead of asking Auburn what it’s doing differently in response to taxpayer initiatives, such as TABOR I and II and the national economy, it would be easier to ask what Auburn isn’t doing differently. Nearly every facet of Auburn’s local government is undergoing one change or another, and it’s all in effort to provide superior services at an affordable cost.

Not every change made thus far in Auburn has been received with open arms from our residents, such as the elimination of the $4,300 for curbside pickup of Christmas trees, but all changes have gone toward either improving services or reducing cost. Improving services does not necessarily mean offering more service; it just means that whichever services we are able to provide, we will do them well.

Perhaps the largest change Auburn has made in response to several tax initiatives, such as TABOR, and a declining national economy has been addressing operational inefficiencies. Operational inefficiencies such as problems with communication, finances, etc. were listed in the New York Times article as one of 10 reasons why small businesses fail. There are countless examples of why Auburn had operational inefficiencies; most of which went unseen because no one was looking, nor did the public get the full view of city operations. Regardless, we embraced the brutal truth and then made a commitment to change. That change is implementing 5P Management.

What is 5P Management? The 5P Management system poses five questions to determine if a local government is being managed well—well enough to produce documented financial and operational results. The questions focus upon Personnel, Performance, Projects, Problems and Programs. Pursuing these questions is the only means for local government to improve enough to meet public expectations, expectations that have gone unmet for far too long.

The 5P Management System establishes standards in each of the 5P categories that, when properly managed, will generate the greatest financial and operational accountability. Each category requires the development of financial and managerial skill sets, such as planning, organizing, evaluating and supervising—the skills necessary to create consistent and predictable service results and efficiencies. Enhancing managerial skill sets will ensure the public that we are using their scarce resources to provide superior services at an affordable cost.

The city has adopted the 5P Management System to build the public’s confidence and to earn its trust that its tax dollars are being used wisely and efficiently, demonstrated through documentation and data collection. Where traditional governmental solutions to problems have been to simply add more manpower or money to fix problems, no longer are such “solutions” possible.

Taxpayers cannot afford to give any more money, and they expect what they do give to be used by local government as efficiently as possible. To meet this expectation, local government can no longer do what it’s always done, but somehow still expect different results. It is our responsibility to raise the bar and to do things differently so that we produce better results, ones that meet the public’s expectation of fiscal and operational accountability.

Auburn has the sense of urgency, has made a commitment to “Excellence in Governance,” is undergoing change and will be a state leader in terms of both financial and operational performance.

I am writing about Auburn’s organizational change because if I were not the city manager, I would want to know. I would want to know what my city was doing differently as a result of any number of challenges we’ve had recently, including the national economy. It’s important to me that Auburn’s residents know that its public-service staff works tirelessly to find new solutions to old problems so that we do improve our service and that our service is affordable.

Convenience versus Cost. Meeting the public’s expectation as a local government is challenging as our “customer base” includes a wide range of people—ranging from those who own multiple houses to those who are homeless. Retailers can focus can upon specific customer demographics, but in local government the expectation is that we capture everything under the rainbow.

The problem is that, as the years have passed and expectations have grown, increased and expanded, we no longer can afford the same services we once did. If we always do what we’ve always done, we can expect to get what we’ve always got: more costly services. However, we now expect something different, which means we can’t continue doing what we’ve always done.

Reducing the property tax burden is the public’s expectation, and it requires one or more of the following activities: increasing risk, decreasing convenience or better management of resources. Though everyone might agree we need to achieve our overall goal of a reduced property tax burden, not everyone agrees how we get there.

Nearly every proposed service cut is met with resistance from one or group or another. The recent decision to not provide pickup of Christmas trees has left some residents frustrated and feeling that the service should be included in their taxes. Is Christmas tree pickup really a “public service and benefit” that aids the public health and welfare, or is it just a convenience service?

I’m sure those who went to the expense of purchasing an artificial tree would certainly question why the city might have spent upwards of $4,300 in labor, equipment and fuel for a Christmas tree pick-up program.

In our effort of reducing the property tax burden, we need the public’s help to prioritize governmental services. We know we can’t continue to fund all of the services we once did, as the overwhelming majority of residents want a reduced property tax burden. We also know that some programs must go, such as eliminating unnecessary streetlights or weekly recycling or always having all the personnel and staff we once did to assist.

With regard to the Christmas tree program, there are many residents who believe that if someone can haul the tree to their house, then they can equally as well haul the tree to one of three convenient disposal locations.

Identifying City Vehicles. If I had a nickel for every time I was asked why a city vehicle was here or why was it there, I’d balance the budget—the national budget, that is. Driving a vehicle with a city seal sets a vehicle apart and makes it stand out: when it’s parked at a store, people ask questions.

To make things more efficient and more accountable, the city will be writing a policy that will call for employees to report the time and location of when the employee stops. The Auburn police already sign in and out when they are out of the cruiser and go into a store, for example.

The expanded policy will include other city departments with vehicles, such as the Public Works and Fire Departments. The city needs to know where its vehicles are and how the vehicles are being used. In addition, we will be placing larger numbers on our fleet vehicles so that they may be more easily identified by the public and the city officials.

Knowing where our vehicles are and causing them to be identified more easily will help build the city’s accountability and help to build public trust and confidence.

Ambassadors for the APD. In an effort to reduce the property tax burden and improve services, the Auburn Police Department has developed an advanced volunteer program. The Volunteers In Police Service (VIPS) program is coordinated by Liz Allen, who works to recruit, screen, train and place community volunteers at the APD.

This impressive team of volunteers is setting a whole new standard for community outreach, as they assist with duties such as filing, answering phones and data entry. Members of the Citizen Patrol perform vacant house checks, serve subpoenas, direct traffic at accident scenes and community events and provide disabled parking enforcement in retail shopping areas and downtown.

Other volunteers serve as members of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), which is trained to respond in the event of a disaster, and the APD Regional Explorer Post.

Residents should be pleased to know that our APD community volunteers donated an astounding 3,581 hours of service to the agency! Using the “2009 national estimated dollar value of volunteer time,” that adds up to $74,664 worth of time, talent and energy in support of the Auburn Police Department.

These volunteers—these “ambassadors for the APD”—have a very meaningful impact on our police department and truly make a difference in our community. Though the volunteers are not replacing staff, their efforts help the city to maintain the services we currently provide.

Without volunteers, the city would either need to reduce services or have more staff.

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