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Weekly Review: Improving Auburn’s website; blizzard costs; United Way

By Glenn E. Aho

Auburn City Manager

If money were not an object, just think of the possibilities for the city to improve its welcome mat along Washington Street and onto Minot Avenue! That will be the focus of an innovative committee the city will be calling together to help form ideas, and who knows, maybe even a plan that can be put into action.

As written in the City Manager’s January 2009 Special Report, community-spirited problem solving works best when people are drawn into and invited to participate. Today, we are looking to assemble interested, local people for an informal discussion regarding the condition of Auburn’s threshold and welcoming mat—Washington Street and Minot Avenue. In this forum, it will be Auburn business owners and residents helping its government to identify problems and solutions to help build a better Auburn.

The corridor into our city has potential for change: there are several developments underway that, if coordinated, could help turn the theoretical into reality. There are local businesses owners willing to invest into the right project. There are properties along the corridor that could be changing hands. The city might be in the position to sell the police station. The MDOT is finalizing its plans for the Rotary and potentially creating space for developing a “gateway.”

There are other vacant properties that if pursued might become more available and potentially part of a larger plan. Most importantly, there are scores of Auburn residents who would like to see the corridor improved—where there is a will, there’s a way. Maybe nothing will come of the city’s efforts, but Economic Development Director Roland Miller wants to stay on top of any potential development. Knowing how important the entrance of our city is, he wants to be on the ground level of any plans that could be enhanced with his involvement. Roland knows nearly everyone, and he is aware of what funding sources could be matched with private development to leverage an ordinary project into an extraordinary project.

Hosting an informal meeting among local business owners and citizens is beneficial in terms of helping city staff generate ideas and identify potential stakeholders. It’s an exciting project and Roland would like to hear from you if you’re interested in being part of the informal discussion. You can contact Roland by emailing him at rmiller@auburnmaine.gov.

Improving the City’s Website. If you’ve ever had a disagreement with someone, you know how frustrating poor communication can be, especially when it’s just a one-sided conversation. Improved, two-way communication will most times resolve even the ugliest of disagreements. In Auburn, we’ve had our fair share of communication problems and we’re ready to do something about it.

With fewer city staff, a challenging phone system, changing service hours and a website right from the 1990s, communicating with our public is more important now than ever, though our ability to communicate continues to worsen. Of those four communication challenges, updating the city’s website is the least expensive, and it would serve to not only offer traditional web-based services, but it would re-introduce Auburn’s government to its residents only this time as an interactive community.

The interactive community opens the door for web-based, two-way communication of sharing and feedback between residents and its government; thus improving communication, governmental accountability, transparency, and ultimately service—just imagine receiving that early morning text or email reminding you of your recycling day! Sharing information and collecting feedback are two of the most important activities a government can have with its citizens, as it’s from our citizen’s feedback we learn where we need to improve.

The city has done very well using innovative technology to lower its expenditures by reducing labor. With an enhanced website utilizing contemporary web design capabilities, we want even more residents to use city web services, reducing the need of residents from having to physically visit Auburn Hall.

Cities across the nation recognize the largest cost of providing services is labor. Auburn underwent a labor reduction two years in a row and by pursuing innovative technologies as the needs are identified, it will allow us to stabilize our services. In other words, we continue to manage our services as we have in the past, but only now we have fewer employees and our service is waning.

Though the upgraded web site won’t be a cure-all, it certainly will improve our service, help staff manage workloads and make more information and services available to the public.

The cost of completely upgrading the city’s web site can be upwards of $30,000; in terms of a labor, that would compare to one person’s salary without benefits. The website design will last for years and expand and improve services. When this project is presented to the City Council, it will be suggested that it be funded using proceeds from the sale of city property. Over the past few years, the city has sold $35,000 in property and has another $115,000 in the process of being sold.

Undertaking efforts to improve communication between residents and their government is always a worthwhile endeavor. With Auburn’s recent budget reductions, our communication has suffered. We simply need to do things differently. The traditional governmental solution to problems, which has been to add more manpower or money, no longer works—at least in Auburn, anyway.

Residents would much rather see the city use innovative technology to improve services, such as communication services, than add people to its payroll. Establishing Auburn as an interactive-community will provide employees with the communication tools they need to continue our efforts providing superior services at an affordable cost.

Trying to convey the differences between web-technology in a mere paragraph doesn’t even begin to capture what capabilities new technology has to offer and why upgrading Auburn’s site would be a good idea. If you have ever visited the Auburn website, you know it is difficult to navigate, to say the least. Here are a few reasons the city needs to upgrade its website to improve communication with our residents:

The new site would have a simplified and standardized design increasing the visual appeal and site confidence by users; our current site is cluttered, disorganized and lacks visual and navigation appeal.

The new site would create one city calendar of upcoming events and meetings; our current calendar is incomplete, difficult to read, has limited space and is difficult to view.

The new site would provide an interactive resident-government relationship allowing residents to directly report and track their non-emergency community concerns giving immediate feedback on progress and or resolution; our current website simply allows residents to send a general email.

The new site would provide links from our website and newly posted information to social networking sites; our current site has limited and less dynamic functions.

The new site would provide residents with city alerts or reminders such as “Today is your recycling day;” our current site simply makes a list of streets and their corresponding schedule.

The new site would offer multiple means of communication channels that the public is already using, such as mobile and web technologies; our current site makes an attempt to reach out, but it has limited capabilities.

The new site would allow city staff to interchange photos, keeping our website seasonal and current; our current site is static and we’re unable to change the front-page photos without cost.

Aside from the above points, there are nearly endless possibilities of how the city could better market itself as a worth-while place to live, work and invest. Establishing Auburn as an interactive-community will help the city meet the expectations of its public while also further opening the doors and windows of government for improved communication, transparency, access, service and on and on.

Blizzard Costs. The December 27 “blizzard” cost Auburn taxpayers $49,312, which is $13,030 above our normal storm cost for this season of $36,282. Taxpayers have paid $108,846 this winter season in salt, calcium, sand, fuel, and regular and over time hours.

Deputy Public Works Director Denis D’Auteuil said that given the challenges of the storm, the supervisors and the crew did a great job keeping the roads safe as well as controlling cost.

Though the city has undergone a reduced plowing schedule between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., because of the forecasted blizzard, we decided to maintain the normal plowing schedule. Each storm is different and we will use our best judgment in anticipating and planning for each storm.

Intersection of Mt. Auburn Ave. and Summer St. More often than not the city is asked to place a new sign at the intersection of Mt. Auburn Avenue and Summer Street. Right now, Mt. Auburn Avenue traffic must yield to Summer Street traffic, which has lower traffic volume. Residents ask why not just allow Mt. Auburn Avenue have the right-of-way, and all would be good, right?

In 2007, the Park Avenue Corridor Study was undertaken and it identified the intersections of Mt. Auburn Ave. and Summer St. and Mt. Auburn Ave. and Park Ave. to be unsafe—nothing new there. The study identified the very issue why residents ask for a sign, but also that if a sign were to be placed, it would significantly disadvantage Summer St. motorists exiting onto Mt. Auburn Ave, as the acute angle would impair sight distances.

Trading one dangerous situation for another is not always the best means of making an overall “improvement.”

The improvements that are being focused upon include building separate right- and left-hand turning lanes from Park Ave. onto Mt. Auburn Ave.; building a separate left-hand turn from Mt. Auburn Ave. onto Park Ave.; and finally, restrict motorists from being allowed from exiting Summer St. and pulling onto Mt. Auburn Avenue. These projects will all have public hearings where the public can ask questions. No public hearings have been set yet, though I anticipate the hearings will be this spring.

United Way Donations. Each year many social-service organizations request donations of Auburn’s government in response to the Auburn residents for whom these social-service organizations provide assistance. Also each year the City Council reviews the social-service request and decides whether or not there is enough funding to grant the request. There are even public hearings for people to comment upon any one of the social services funded, or not, by the City Council.

The chairman of the United Way, Daniel D’Auteuil, recently commented he was disappointed with a decision by the me to not allow employee rallies during city time. My reasoning is that it’s difficult for me to be generous with the taxpayer dollars. First of all, it’s not my money; and secondly, since a single rally can cost taxpayers upwards of $4,000, it really should be a budget line item.

It would be better if the United Way submitted a letter of request to the City Council, like other social service organizations, and that the cost of the employee rally become a line item where people could comment upon as if it were any other social-service collection.

It doesn’t stop with the United Way, either. I recently denied a private business wanting a similar forum of our employees to sell insurance. At some point the city must focus upon our public service and duty of providing public service, which includes watching every penny as if it were our own.

Years ago the Maine legislature deemed it illegal for a municipality to expend public dollars on private property, unless a particular process is followed. It’s really not that much of a stretch to extend that law to include spending money for private purposes, such as an employee rally for private purposes.

The law as it exists makes no distinction between private and non-profit organizations as it applies to spending public funds on non-public activities. I believe that whether the city expends $4,000 on one employee rally for one company is a matter of public policy, not an administrative decision.

On a personal note, I commend Dan D’Auteuil and the entire United Way organization for the efforts it undertakes on behalf of so many needy individuals and families. I certainly mean no disrespect to United Way or anyone who volunteers or donates to the organization.

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