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Needed, a new attitude at city hall
Jack Balshaw 3/27/02

I thought I was reacting to an extreme amount of overhead cost when I mentioned that the proposed street tax or assessment included 40% overhead (60% of the money for construction and 40% for paperwork). I just finished reading about the city’s proposed sidewalk repair program and see that they want to use 50% of the money just to survey and plan which sidewalks to repair.  From an $80,000 annual program, $20,000 would be spent for a survey of sidewalks and another $20,000 to use that information to prioritize sidewalk repairs.

The $40,000 left was estimated to be enough to do fifty repairs annually.  A suggestion was made at the meeting where this was presented to the council that water meter readers could do the survey at no extra cost.  I would add to that that senior staff could easily pick fifty locations to work on from the many hundreds that would have the highest hazardous ratings.  Maybe all $80,000 could then be spent for repairs and get twice as many sections fixed.

This program in itself isn’t that big a deal but, for me, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  All too often city staff recommends what I call the “gold plated” option.  That is the  “right way” to do a project or a recommendation to purchase top of the line equipment.  I see two undesirable attitudes exhibited in these staff recommendations.

The first is in an attitude that they’re spending “other peoples’ money” and so cost is not a factor.  The other seems to me to be an attitude of recommending to the council the best procedures and the costliest equipment with the unstated position that if the council decides to do anything less, it will be the council’s fault if the job isn’t done right or the equipment bought isn’t perfect.

One of my civil engineering professors used to say to us, “An engineer does for a dollar what any damn fool can do for two”.  I would like to think city staff would consider not only the gold plated option when making recommendations to the council, but also, what can best be done with the amount of money actually available.  Unfortunately, the cover-your-backside attitude is well entrenched in government work.

This isn’t limited to staff however.  Our council has a tendency to ask for expensive studies and workshops on items where the majority opinion is well known.  All these studies and workshops do is delay the final vote, by which time those in the minority opinion hope for an election to change the council’s political balance.

Often it’s just the little things.  We’re spending money on “no parking” signs where people have never had interest in parking.  We’re painting curbs red to further preclude parking.  Note, this painting then requires continuous repainting taking up labor time and cost that could be directed elsewhere.

With an adequate Police Department, the Recreation Department is still hiring private security firms to patrol and lock and unlock city parks.  Whether this is because the police won’t perform the task or because the Rec Dept wants its own police force, I don’t know.  Might not the Water Department be doing the same things for its facilities?

A long time ago, I looked into the number of copies of documents that were being made at city hall and in the various departments.  It was astounding.  This seems also to be part of the cover-your-backside mode of operation in that no one can say you didn’t tell them about something if you sent them a copy.

I have an old fashioned attitude that if you look out for the nickels and dimes, the dollars will take care of themselves.  When I become aware of waste, I imagine there must be much more nobody knows about.  Tolerating waste is also an attitude.  


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