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Weekly Review: Customer service; logging in; and 5 more weeks of winter!

By Glenn E. Aho

Auburn City Manager

Reducing the city’s tax burden is a goal of the Auburn City Council, and it’s the job of city administration to work toward meeting that goal.

It’s not easy, as government’s usual response to complaints is to simply add more money and more manpower to the budget to make those complaints go away. That doesn’t work any longer.

With the City Council’s goal of reducing the tax burden, our response to complaints must be a greater effort toward managing what money and manpower we already have. To make matters more challenging, we actually have fewer employees to address complaints and to work toward the City Council’s goal. City employees have worked exceedingly hard these past two years, and I’m pleased to say that we are doing a lot better than we were two years ago.

What’s changed is that we are managing better and implementing managerial accountability as it relates to planning, cost controls and standardization. We are also using technology to create efficiencies and only hope the City Council continues to make investments to support the efforts of our employees, who are truly working smarter, not harder.

Our efforts may be commonplace to the private sector, but such accountability is rare, if at all, in the public sector—that’s precisely why the City Council’s goal is to reduce the property tax burden. It’s too easy to allow governmental expenses to run uncontrolled when things are not managed properly.

Customer Service Survey. Since Auburn is being managed like a business and businesses conduct market research, then so too will we conduct market research. Yes, we have a few survey questions for those who take the time to go to Auburn Hall to conduct their business. We want to know information from our customers is so we can better provide our future services.

We want to know if a service were offered online, would citizens use it? We want to know if they would like a television in the lobby displaying community events and services. We want to know how long customers believe is an acceptable time to wait in line. We want to know if the city had a “self check-out” counter, would it be used? It’s these things and more that we want to know so we continue our effort to provide superior services at an affordable cost.

The survey will take place over a two-week period, and two City Councilors have agreed to work to administer the surveys. We will be using a hand-held computer and the Survey Monkey program to tally the results. We will most likely offer the same survey online to reach out to as many people as possible.

To even further evaluate our lobby services at Auburn Hall, we want to learn from local banks how they staff their counters, customer counts, length of transactions, etc. Having this baseline data, and the information from the survey, will help us develop a new perspective on an old governmental service so we continue to meet the needs of our customers.

Providing local government services isn’t what it used to be. Simply adding more money and manpower to address complaints doesn’t work, not in this economic climate. Managing our tax dollars more wisely, focusing upon on what our customers want, rather than what we think they need, and using technology instead of adding people are the ways that Auburn is different.

Property Valuation Changes. One year ago the Auburn Assessing Department was in trouble. We did not have enough employees to calculate the tax commitment in time, which is really no different as a private business trying to conduct business without knowing what to charge for its product. Bailing out the City of Auburn was the City of Lewiston, which sent several employees to Auburn to help.

Today the Assessing Department has changed how we conduct business, including the privatization of some of the assessing functions. We need to re-define customer service, encourage people to use more online services, and adjust the hours we’re open and available to the public. These things must be done so that we have enough staff hours to focus on the absolute essential assessing functions.

Though we are better, we still are just one “banana peel” away from slipping back; however, we continue to make adjustments to account for those surprises too.

One project that is absolutely essential to focus on is property reviews. State law requires municipalities to review properties at least every four years. This year, with better planning and without any added staff, our Assessing Dept. staff was able to conduct the property reviews.

Assessor Renee Lachapelle said staff reviewed 2,390 properties and made valuation changes to 909 properties that resulted in a net valuation change of $923,600—nearly $18,000 in property taxes. Renee said there were 46 properties reported to Planning and Permitting for not having obtained permits. We hope that when EnerGov is fully operational that the ease of filing for permits will reduce the number of people who skirt the issue.

As an aside, Renee has changed how the office acquires property transfers from the Registry of Deeds, saving the city about $1,300 each year!

5 More Weeks of Winter. If you haven’t yet complained about the city’s snow plowing, don’t worry because there’s still 5 more weeks of winter—according to the calendar. It could be longer! Truth be told, the crew is doing a good job and it’s more Mother Nature than the city that people should be complaining to—this winter is has not been our “normal” winter!

The City of Auburn has received over 50 inches of snow this year, compared to almost 35 inches for last year’s entire season. The weekly snowstorms have left few places to plow snow and even less time for snow cleanup. After every storm, Auburn Fleet Maintenance logs between 24 and 150 hours repairing trucks and plow equipment, which only delays any real effort of snow cleanup.

Not everything can be blamed on Mother Nature, as there also are both human limitations and human error. There are only three supervisors canvassing the city’s 66.83 square miles with 242 miles of road, who are patrolling the area, identifying problems, checking on crews, planning and investigating service requests. Our new dispatcher, or incident command person, is serving as “communication-central.”

Through better communication, our service will greatly improve. However, we can’t fix what we don’t know about. We have plenty of people who complain about our service, but they do not always file a report. Recently complaints were aired during a City Council meeting; those complaints had not been first shared with Public Works.

If the city were to add another plow route to address the public’s concerns, it would initially cost over $250,000—or more than 10 cents on the tax rate—to purchase equipment and personnel. And that’s not to mention the ongoing costs. People do pay a lot in taxes, but the level of services they currently receive is all that their tax dollars will buy.

The city will always work to improve our services, but service to everyone would be better if people followed parking bans and would stop plugging sidewalks when they plow their own driveway. Public service is everyone’s responsibility, not just the responsibility of the public servants.

Though there isn’t much we can do about Mother Nature, we can all try to work together. If everyone worked together, we certainly would all enjoy better services.

Public Works Logs In. Murphy’s Law may explain why whatever it is you’re looking for, it can’t be found. But even Murphy himself would be hard pressed to say anything negative about the new vehicle policy at the Auburn Public Works.

Every person and every vehicle at Public Works is a great asset, and knowing where company assets are throughout the day is necessary for a safe, efficient operation. The gist of the new vehicle policy is that employees must log in and log out when leaving their vehicle. If they stop at a store, not only do they have to log-out, but the store can’t be more than a mile from the work zone.

The new policy creates an environment of accountability and it allows the Public Works dispatcher to know exactly where city vehicles are. The alternative would have been to install GPS units in all vehicles, but that cost is unnecessary at this time The Public Works crew members have been doing a great job logging their location throughout the day. The policy went into effect February 9.

Great Falls School Update. Roland Miller continues his discussions with Community Little Theater regarding an agreement for the future use of Great Falls School.  The terms that continue to be discussed include property ownership, maintenance responsibilities, insurance, site preparation of the removed section of the building, site reuse plans, building modifications, code compliance, etc. Roland said CLT has continued to work on the schematic site plan, utility connections, building access, parking and a preliminary project budget. It is hoped that all this work will be ready for presentation to the Auburn City Council by mid March.

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