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Weekly Review: “Can’t you find the budget cuts elsewhere?”

By Glenn E. Aho

Auburn City Manager

“Can’t you find the budget cuts elsewhere?” That’s a question I hear in response to any budget cuts the city has made in effort to reduce the property tax burden.

The problem is that no matter what is cut—or is proposed to be cut—the same question is asked. No one wants their service cut: they just want to cut the other person’s service. But to reduce the size of local government, we need to change one service at a time until it’s affordable.

There are three ways to reduce the size of government: Reduce convenience, such as reducing city hours or programs—like Christmas tree pickup; increase risk, such as reducing street lights; or manage government resources better. The City of Auburn has focused upon all three. But most of its efforts have been to manage its resources better because no one likes to see governmental inefficiencies, even during the best of times.

The simple truth is this: our services and city infrastructure cost more than what most people are willing to pay for those services and maintaining the infrastructure. After years of budget trimming, our services are capable of only responding to “normal” events, nothing more.

One police stand-off, one major fire or even one major snow storm has the potential of quickly draining our available resources. We’ve all witnessed this recently with the above average snowstorms. Instead of one inch per hour, three inches fell per hour, and our department fell behind.

Not everyone may agree with the city’s three-pronged strategy for reducing the tax burden—decreasing convenience, increasing risk and managing our resources better—but for now, it’s the only strategy we have. And it’s working.

At the very least, the strategy has helped slow the growth of local government expenditures. So, “Can’t you find the budget cuts elsewhere?” The answer is yes, but not without significantly reducing even more services, which would require a lot more of the public’s patience and lower expectations of local government.

Auburn Hall Shut-Down Day. The Auburn Hall shut-down day on January 26 was a success! We accomplished everything we set out to and more—which included finding the insanity trial papers in the basement. Apparently, the Auburn City Council once had the authority to deem someone insane!

Assistant City Manager Phil Crowell coordinated the entire event and did a great job. The goal was to re-organize Auburn Hall so it would be used in the most efficient manner. The city’s Information Technology department was moved to the first floor. Many departments spent time organizing their work areas after completing the organization of the basement archive/storage area.

Planning and Engineering began merging their filing system, which will create efficiencies. The staff did an amazing job! The work has now paved the way for the Auburn Police to begin work in the basement where the patrol offices will be located.

Throughout the day, the Public Works crew removed two loads of bulky waste; one load of e-waste; one load of wood debris that will be used in the winter festival bonfire; and one partial load of metal.

Organizing Auburn Hall has allowed the city to move Auburn Police to Auburn Hall, leaving the 1 Minot Avenue location available for sale. The City Council will soon be discussing how it might want to proceed. Not only will the move save taxpayers $60,000 annually in utility costs, but also hundreds of thousands of dollars in avoided costs—costs that would have needed to occur had the police remained on Minot Avenue.

The city will not only benefit from the sale of the property, but also from the annual property taxes collected from the property from here on out.

Idling Fire Engine. Central Fire Station on Minot Avenue is where most of the fire department’s training occurs. The State of Maine Bureau of Labor Standards requires annually at least 30 hours of training; then there is EMS and fire training to boot.

Last week the department converged onto Central Fire for training and parked what vehicles could fit inside to protect them from the 12-degree weather. The ladder truck, or Tower 1, was parked outside for many hours idling, leaving some residents to ask why.

The equipment inside Tower 1 includes the AEDs, medical equipment and IV bags and more, which must be kept warm if they are to be available for use. Some might also ask if Tower 1 needed to be brought from its Center Street Location to Central Fire; to those I would respond yes. Tower 1 must be readily available so that it can respond with two engines to any report of a fire inside of a building, or be used for traffic control, which allows us from having to close roads to traffic.

Overall, we have reduced expenses, for example taking Rescue 1 out of its normal service; however, there are other areas we can continue to look. We recognize that the idling truck is not efficient, but at the moment we don’t have a better solution. We have used CDs and online training when possible to avoid situations like what occurred last week. The city is working to change its vehicle policies to reduce unnecessary idling and vehicle usage—with time we always do improve.

Recreation Advisory Board. If you want to become more involved with the Auburn Parks and Recreation Department, now is the time, whether it’s by participating online or by becoming a member of the Recreation Advisory Board.

The City is committed to continuous improvement, and that means we need your feedback. We’re certainly not perfect, but we can give a perfect effort. Residents can get their recreation ideas to us by visiting www.teamsideline.com/auburnme. Recreation Director Ravi Sharma said it’s there where you will find program information, surveys, schedules, contact info and more. He said another way one can get involved is to apply for the Recreation Advisory Board.

“The purpose of this board is to offer suggestions for enhancing current activities, but more so, bringing forward thoughts that are within the minds’ of the public,” Ravi said. There are three available seats on the board; if interested, apply at the City Clerk’s office.

Work Smarter, Not Harder. Labor reductions and budget cuts have given cause for city employees to work smarter, not harder. This is one reason so many changes throughout the city were needed. The theme of traditional government services has been “the more, the better” for decades. This is the opposite of working smarter, not harder. That makes this new perspective even more difficult to achieve.

In the past we’ve been able to say “yes” to many non-essential services, but these “yes” answers and the dollars attached to them, have accumulated like straw on a camel’s back. Which straw broke the camel’s back is impossible to determine. But it has become evident that we need to start saying “no” rather than the traditional “yes” to more services.

Departments like the Auburn Public Works continue to undergo change. An example of our latest change—or how we’re working smarter, not harder—is new staffing. Following the National Incident Management System (NIMS) model, the Auburn Public Works will now have an Incident Commander for all events, especially storm events.

According to NIMS, the most efficient means of managing an emergency is to have personnel dedicated to incident command, operations, planning, logistics and finances. Assimilating that to the Auburn Public Works, one person can do all five functions in terms of managing overall strategy, breakdowns, call-ins, fuel, sand and salt inventories and purchasing. In the private sector, the position is similar to a dispatcher.

What exactly is the change being made? The department previously operated with four supervisors who each had a district—not always did one supervisor know how the other three were doing or if they needed help. Communication with the public was often bounced around until someone found an answer, if at all.

By designating one of the supervisors as the Incident Commander, one person will coordinate the communication, resources and needs between all plowing crews and other departments, such as emergency services. The public will now have contact with the person who is aware of our entire operation and the status of our progress.

Crews will know exactly where our plowing resources need to be, whether other crews are in need of help and be able to report a breakdown more quickly.

Deputy Public Works Director Denis D’Auteuil said he’s very excited about the change, as he knows it will increase our service, especially while communicating with our residents. But it’s also more efficient, so we save money.

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