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Weekly Review: Waiting for MobileGov; “Report It;” and Weights and Measures

By Glenn E. Aho

Auburn City Manager

For 142 years the City of Auburn has operated essentially the same way: each city department working independently from one another, and all departments reporting to the City Manager.  Having so many departments report to one person and with each department working independently, it’s very inefficient and difficult to sustain accountability.

The lack of efficiency and accountability are not only two of the public’s greatest pet peeves with local government, but they must also be the two areas local government works to improve.

I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Though there are many things local government does right, what citizens have always “got” from local government is inefficiency and a lack of accountability.

The accountability residents speak of is managerial accountability in terms of city personnel, city projects, city programs and city performance. With established managerial accountability, efficiencies will come.

Faced with a national recession and falling state revenues, local government has every reason to change how it conducts its business. “Business as usual” is not acceptable. In Auburn our labor reductions have only added to the city’s urgency to re-invent itself so that it can continue providing essential services, but with fewer people.

How Auburn has changed in response to national and state events, as well as local labor reductions, is to re-organize the city based upon two concepts: team and management. Put simply, none of us is as smart as all of us, so we need teams to find tax-saving solutions. How we find those solutions is through better managing the city in terms of planning, organizing, evaluating and supervising.

Assigning these four management activities to employees working in a team environment is our solution to establishing better local government efficiency and accountability.

The team environment is established by grouping similar departments into one of three teams. From each of those teams, one person is chosen to be the team director. There are several benefits of focusing upon teamwork. Here are a few that will enhance our productivity:

Resources are better coordinated between departments such as Public Works, Engineering, Planning, thus avoiding costly projects such as the East Waterman project last summer;

Everyone is more knowledgeable of how other departments function, thus are also better contributors;

Problem solving becomes more productive in a team environment;

Individuals perform better in smaller groups than larger ones;

Essential managerial skills and abilities are better learned in a team environment.

The Senior Management Teams (SMT) are public safety, public administration and public service. The three Team Directors of each of the three SMTs will work in concert with the City Manager and the Assistant City Manager, who together form the Executive Management Team (EMT).

The city’s team and management structure is not much different than the organization of many private businesses, such as the banking industry, where it’s more effective to have regional and branch managers. Whereas the city’s EMT, or the “regional manager,” is responsible for planning and coordinating, the city’s SMT, or “branch manager,” is more responsible for the day-to-day operations. This new structure has allowed the city to reduce its number of administrators by three.

Introducing managerial accountability to local government is absolutely necessary; after all, most residents would likely assume it’s already in place. Unfortunately, it is not. Managerial activities are forgone, as it’s too easy to increase taxes to raise more money or hire more people to address problems.

That can only work for so long; local government has already been to the well one too many times. Now is the time to manage the public’s money better, as it should have been done so many years ago.

Public Safety Consolidation. Is Public Safety Consolidation possible? Will it save money? Is it more efficient? How will it work?

These questions and more have been researched and answered by five of Auburn’s employees who recently traveled to Grants Pass, Oregon to explore the concept and to look for answers. Those who are leading this project are Deputy Police Chief Jason Moen; Deputy Fire Chief Geoff Low; Deputy Fire Chief Mike Minkowsky; Fire Lieutenant Chris Andreasen; and Detective Chad Syphers. I have reviewed the report outline and am impressed with the professionalism and workmanship—these employees did a fine job!

Last budget season the City Council tasked administration to find what savings might be found by consolidating police and fire. The first move was to review operational consolidation, but that proved to be too costly and not practical.

The second move was to review administration consolidation; although there may not be a lot of cost savings, there are efficiencies to be had. The Grants Pass experience provided valuable information to Auburn so as we continue toward identifying efficiencies, we can avoid the problems and failures of others before us.

This project was initiated by the City Council and completed by administration, namely the five individuals listed above. The end result will be that Auburn continues to review every process it has and identifies improved ways and means to provide the same service. Again, these employees did an outstanding job. I look forward to their report.

Waiting for MobileGov. A major challenge while implementing any new software system is managing people’s attitudes and behaviors as a result of the new software. Understanding change, the need to change, and leaving behind what was once comfortable—all stages of implementing new software—is not an easy process. However, the Twin Cities of Auburn and Lewiston are doing exactly that: leaving behind old ways of doing things in favor of using innovative technology to gain greater efficiencies.

The Twin Cities went live with the EnerGov project last July, and knowing that we were under the gun to create efficiencies we voluntarily set an aggressive implementation strategy. The project was split in half; the first half was dedicated to taking old ways of issuing licenses and permits and defining a new electronic process. Deciding what worked well, what didn’t and what needed to change have all been the challenging questions of the first phase.

The second phase, which is largely the public side of EnerGov, has not yet occurred—but we are getting closer. Eric Cousens, who is leading the EnerGov project for Auburn, summed it up: “Phase 2 is what we’ve all been waiting for.”

He said the second phase will include business licensing, MobileGov and Citizen Access Portal (CAP)—everything that will benefit the customer. MobileGov will allow inspectors to track inspections and permits in the field and will eliminate the need to enter that data after they return to the office.

CAP will allow citizens and contractors to access up-to-date permit information for their projects and allow online applications for permits and license renewals. Online applications will save people a trip to City Hall, and it will shift the data entry from staff to the person applying for the permit or license and create a new, time-saving efficiency. All of these functions will also provide the city with data to conduct performance measurements, so that we can continuously improve our services. Eric said that implementation and training for Phase 2 has now been scheduled for the first week of March.

Implementing EnerGov is no easy task, and it’s a long process: the entire system must be built specifically for Auburn and Lewiston. It’s the difference between a tailored suit and a one-size-fits-all suit.

Tailoring EnerGov to Auburn and Lewiston requires the cities to understand their business licensing and permitting systems in terms of what it is and what we need them to be. It does take visioning and planning, but it’s not impossible. Along the way there will be challenges and obstacles. But is nothing we can’t overcome with a positive attitude and commitment, which both cities have.

Economic Development Activity. The development of EnerGov is on pace with the anticipated development that seems to be becoming more active. Without EnerGov the City of Auburn would absolutely need to re-hire everyone who was part of the labor reduction. With EnerGov, we anticipate the use of innovative technology to create enough efficiencies to overcome the labor reduction.

The plan had been to implement EnerGov first and then undergo a labor reduction, but the ailing national and state economies inverted that plan altogether. First came the labor reduction, and then came EnerGov.

Economic Development Director Roland Miller, who works with prospective developers, said he’s encouraged by the activity and the potential projects. He said the activity level is greater than what he’s seen in many years. He is actively working to facilitate eleven developments that represent nearly $80 million.

This type of investment is necessary if the city is going to sustain its current level of services. He added that there continues to be a high level of interest in the sale of the 1 Minot Avenue property, though that discussion has yet to be scheduled with the City Council.

As economic activity begins to regain momentum, our planning and permitting office will need to have EnerGov fully operational if we’re to keep pace and not hold up our local developers with a backlog of inspections.

Website Would Allow Residents to “Report It.” The City has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for innovative technology. Had it not been for that investment, the city’s overall budget would be a lot more than what it is. Using innovative technology helps improve productivity without having to add personnel. Though technology is expensive, it’s not as expensive as personnel.

With most of our new software programs in place, what’s needed now is to showcase the software all on one artists’ palette, so to speak. The idea is to rebuild the city’s website to serve as the access window to the information and data we have though the public doesn’t have a convenient means to access.

We want to provide the public access to our information and data without having to access our staff. In other words, when we market Auburn as being open 24-7, we mean 24-7.

The project of rebuilding our website is now before the City Council. It’s proposed to use the sale of city property to make the purchase, rather than city tax dollars. The idea of this project extends beyond creating a virtual window for our citizens to access city information and data, but also to better communicate with our public.

With today’s web technology, the city can improve its communication without having to add personnel. Alerts, notifications and reporting problems are just three features that would make any resident’s life much easier. Take the reporting, for example.

This feature tracks complaints filed by residents. Residents can track the progress to ensure their concern is being addressed. Currently, people who email the city have about a 50-50 chance of having their complaint addressed. The reason is that everyone uses email differently and when multiple people are included in the email, who is actually responsible for responding to the email is uncertain.

There are many times emails go unanswered simply because everyone else thought someone else responded. Another problem is that some residents email multiple people, but separately. The end result is that more than one staff person is unknowingly working on the same concern, thus doubling, tripling or even quadrupling our labor costs—never mind the poor perception to our public when they receive conflicting answers to their concerns.

Information Technology Director Renee Bogart reports that the “Report It” feature allows a user to log in and report non-emergency issues. For example, if a street sign has been damaged a resident can log in to the website and request this to be fixed. This request will be put through to Public Works, where it will be entered into the Work Order system.

Upon this entry, the issue will be assigned to a supervisor who will then ensure that the sign will be fixed or replaced. When a resident reports a problem under our current model, they just need to trust that the city is working on it.

Renee said that under the proposed improvement of our website, the resident has an entirely different experience. They see a damaged sign; they login and report it; and they immediately receive a tracking number. She added that this tracking number, not unlike tracking a package delivery, allows the resident to follow the problem through to its solution.

They will receive notification regarding when it is processed, what work was done and if the status is complete, on hold or if additional information is needed.

To be able to provide “Superior Services at an Affordable Cost” to our residents, this type of technology is our next step. Though this technology may not make much of a difference to our daily workload, it will make a world of difference to the lives of our residents—never underestimate how important it is to be informed!

Weights and Measures. When you purchase a gallon of gasoline, are you sure you’re getting a whole gallon? The city is required to appoint a Sealer of Weights and Measures; as part of our committee appointment research project, we learned that Tom Verrill holds that position. Not everyone knows of the position, but it’s one that helps insure Auburn consumers are getting what they pay for, without any “extra thumbs,” so to speak.

It’s the local Sealer of Weights and Measures, Tom Verrill, who inspects gas pumps, food scales and any other scales used for the weighing and sale of goods. Tom reported that he inspected 308 gas pumps, 18 of which were rejected. Fees are set by the state and for each pump there is an $8 fee.

Tom also conducts tests on scales. Those that have a capacity of less than 1,000 pounds have a $5 inspection fee, and those which have a capacity of more than 1,000 pounds (large capacity scales) have a $10 inspection fee. Of the 170 scales tested in Auburn in 2010, 36 were rejected.

Rejected manual scales can be adjusted for a $3 fee and are generally covered under private maintenance agreements.

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