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Weekly Review: Labor reductions; Spring Clean-Up; Survey Monkey

By Glenn E. Aho

Auburn City Manager

The City Council has started the budget season, and it has a tough job ahead while it evaluates each department’s budget. As there isn’t a single dollar spent in the city’s budget that doesn’t affect one person or another, cutting even a single dollar is sure to spark an emotional debate: everyone suggests that someone else’s dollar should be cut.

This is the same situation our state legislators are in. Put simply, it’s tough to cut budgets amidst emotional appeal, and it’s even tougher to explain why budgets may be increasing.

The City Council asked administration to suggest policy changes that may reduce our budget.  Unfortunately, we do not yet have enough information to provide that answer. Fortunately, however, we eventually will have that information. The city is changing its culture from being service-centered—where all services are provided, regardless of cost—to a cost-centered service, where financial consideration of services is made.

Here is an example of our dilemma: to pave all our local roads, it would cost about $16 million. We spend about $2 million each year to pave or reconstruct our roads. Is the $2 million is too much or not enough—are we catching up or falling behind?

If we knew that we were ahead of schedule, then it would be easy to suggest to the City Council a policy to reduce the paving program; however, we don’t know. This is a prime example of how local government works: the paving schedule is based upon what we can manage for paving contracts, rather than what we should be annually investing.

We are doing what we can to pave our roads, but is it financially prudent? We don’t know. Are the roads deteriorating more quickly than we’re paving? Again, we don’t know; we need data. Deputy Public Works Director Denis D’Auteuil recently commented, “Data drives policy.”

As we continue our efforts to use innovative technology to collect data, we will be able to give the City Councilors the information they need. Right now, it’s anybody’s best guess—and that’s the way it’s always been.

In the pre-Great Recession economy, that was as good as it needed to be. In the post-Great Recession economy, everything is different, or at least it should be. Not all local governments have caught on yet, and it has been business as usual.

Cost of Labor Reductions. If the city were to reverse all of the labor reductions and labor restructuring, the City Council would need to add 28 cents back onto the tax rate. The labor reductions and labor restructuring have saved at least 28 cents from the tax rate. Instead of a $1.74 increase, the City Council would be contemplating a $2.02 increase.

Though the reductions were unpopular, they were necessary as the City Council wanted to reduce the property tax burden. The reductions are even less popular with some of the City Council members who did not vote for the budget. Unpopular or not, the reduction was undertaken because it represented the majority vote of the City Council.

Executive Management Team. The organizational and personnel changes at Auburn Hall are done, complete! It’s been a bit stressful adjusting to all of the labor reductions and shifting workloads, but we have finally developed a plan and assembled a team that is ready to raise the bar, ready to lead the state in local government management.

Now that we’re settled in, we’re ready to start generating the result our public expects, which is operational and financial accountability.

For the public’s and City Council’s convenience, the Executive Management Team, which consists of Denis D’Auteuil, Renee Bogart and Phil Crowell, want to be accessible during every City Council meeting. They want to not only to represent their team departments, but also to give access to the City Council and the public.

Not every department manager attends every meeting, and as the public seems to be asking more questions, they want to represent their departments and answer the council’s and public’s questions. I think it’s a great idea!

Spring Clean-Up. Spring Clean-Up was not fully budgeted for this year, though Public Works Director Bob Belz believes there may be enough funding to offer the service anyway. With fewer weekend storms, which are costly in terms of overtime, the city may have enough to fund the full Spring Clean-Up, which is estimated to cost $186,360 in labor, equipment and disposal costs.

The City will start planning for Spring Clean-Up soon. We intend to offer the full service and, like last year’s brush program, have people call to register. I will ask the City Council if the city should require a $10 fee to help cover the disposal costs, estimated to be about $46,000.

Registration is the most effective method, as it helps city crews plan their day and eliminates having to return to areas already serviced.

In the past, some citizens would leave debris at the curb after crews had already been by. In the past, crews sometimes had to return to areas two and three times, which is costly. Also, by having people register, we can collect data; for example, email addresses for future alerts and service announcements.

Though it appears there are enough funds at the moment, we offer the cautionary note that one major event could cause the budget outlook to change quickly. There are years where the Public Works budget has an end-of-year balance of $500,000 or, like in 2009, it had an end of year balance of $109.

The Public Works budget can swing wildly in one direction or another, simply due to the unpredictability of winter storms.

“How am I doing?” Former New York Mayor Ed Koch was known for traveling from borough to borough asking, “How am I doing?” Asking for feedback is essential in the service industry, whether it’s a local government or a private-sector business.

By use of “Survey Monkey,” the city is asking questions about our hours of operation, web services and more. Though we’ve just started, we immediately can see the value of this survey. For example, where we used to offer morning convenience hours by opening at 7:30 a.m. on certain days, we’re learning that residents prefer evening convenience hours.

We’re also learning that nearly half of the survey respondents are not aware of our on-line services; this is a good reason to build a better, user-friendly website aimed at convenience.

Residents may participate by logging onto www.auburnmaine.org and clicking on the survey link.

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