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Weekly Review: Business as usual; paid snow days

By Glenn E. Aho

Auburn City Manager

Former NBC nightly news anchor Tom Brokaw used to say that it’s easier to make a buck than to make a difference. Wanting to make a difference in this world is perhaps the single-most important inspiration people pursue—at least I know it was for Gail Phoenix.

Gail spent her entire life working to make a difference, and she started to share that inspiration with the City of Auburn in 1986, when she was hired in the Community Development Block Grant office. Gail worked tirelessly to help low-income individuals purchase homes and to make critical upgrades to their existing homes. She even worked with others with commercial loans to start businesses.

Gail’s good work helped scores of people who otherwise might not have had an opportunity. Moreover, these people not only benefitted from the programs Gail administered, but more so from “Gail’s way.” It was “Gail’s way” to commit to a cause or project she believed in and would see the project through, come snow, sleet, or rain. If you called upon Gail for her help, you had an ally, an advocate and, to many, an angel.

Gail was a great public servant who possessed the knowledge and the persistence to effect change and to ultimately make a difference in the lives of many, many Auburn residents. Though there may be no granite memorials commemorating her work, know that her work is memorialized in the hearts and minds of those she helped, both directly and indirectly. We will all miss Gail and remember her as the outstanding public servant she was.

Not Business as Usual. In any business but government, when expenses exceed revenues, it might mean either a “Going Out of Business” sale is eminent or that someone needs to better manage the books—soon. In local government, unfortunately, when expenses exceed revenues, this all too often means “business as usual.”

There is a greater sense of urgency in the private sector to cut costs as a matter of survival—after all, it is survival of the fittest. In local government, cutting costs is not a matter of survival, but more a matter of convenience: if it’s convenient, then costs will be cut; otherwise, it’s business as usual.

Things definitely are not “business as usual” in Auburn. For the past two years the city has been more and more managed like a private business, in terms of producing results, cost planning, cost budgeting and cost control. While these activities are not convenient for public employees, they are absolutely necessary for any business to be profitable.

As the City of Auburn works to compile its Fiscal Year 2012 Municipal Budget, ideas and suggestions are welcomed from the public through the City Manager’s Office. The city is already on the financial path for determining performance and productivity standards; however, by engaging the community—the people who use our services—for budget ideas, the city gets a better perspective.

The types of ideas and suggestions being sought are for cost savings, rather than ideas for adding new programs. Residents view our employees and see our workmanship day in and day out; therefore, they can have a better evaluative perspective than the city’s management team. Public servants expect to be watched, and they are held to higher standards.

Though it can be a bit unsettling to some, there is a level of public scrutiny that should be expected—and welcomed. Put another way, if the city doesn’t know what’s broken, how can the city fix it? Some of our best improvements have come from identifying what isn’t working and finding a solution to make it better or improved.

As the FY 2012 Municipal Budget will be presented in its draft form this March, now would be a good time to hear from you: simply email the City Manager at gaho@auburnmaine.gov.

Paid Snow Days. Just say “Maine winter.” Those two words create the images of snow, cold and more snow and cold. Say those same two words in Aroostook County, where I grew up, and people would add “white-out conditions.”

In The County, the wind races unrestricted across fields, carrying clouds of snow that not only blinds but also drifts, creating very hazardous conditions. Suffice to say, Maine winters are not to be taken lightly—but neither should they be a surprise.

Winter storms are most often the news feature of the day. News crews brave the elements to report upon people’s rush to the grocery store, the latest inch of snow, vehicle accidents or how many businesses have closed. Despite what seems to be a growing trend of towns and cities closing their administrative offices, Auburn will do all it can to remain open for business for as many hours possible.

When towns and cities do close due to a storm, the question that must be asked is, “Who’s paying?” In most, if not all cases, the taxpayers are paying the wages of those who are given a storm day.

Snow days are not the same for teachers, as the number of days of school are fixed. So any storm days are made up the end of the year. As the City Manager, it’s difficult for me to close Auburn Hall when I know that if I went to Subway at noon, there would be someone there to make my sandwich; if I went to Dunkin’ Donuts, there would be someone there to make the coffee; and if I went to buy gas, there certainly would be someone there to take my cash. Why should local government be any different?

Safety should never be taken for granted, but neither should the taxpayer’s money.

Calcium Cost Savings. Government accountability and transparency means there are times when both the good and the ugly need to be identified and discussed. When we do something wrong, we discuss it so that the public knows and understands we are always working to improve our service.

When we do something right, we also like to share that so we can earn the confidence and trust of our citizens. I’m pleased to again write about Mike Cohen with Auburn Pubic Works. Mike recently brought to our attention how the City of Auburn could save money.

He saw that the city was losing calcium while hauling snow. Calcium is spread on the roads to help melt ice and snow. But the city was losing calcium when the storm was over. After snow storms, sanders are removed from plow trucks so that the trucks can then be used for hauling snow away from downtown.

Mike explained that when trucks were being used for hauling snow, calcium was leaking from the calcium tanks on the truck while the snow was being dumped. We’re unsure of how much calcium was leaking out, but for every gallon lost, it’s a gallon that’s not applied to our roads.

Pubic Works Director Denis D’Auteuil said he was pleased with Mike’s observation. It will raise the awareness among all others so we can get the product we need, where we need it—which is on the roads!

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