State of the Cities in 2011: Building a More Efficient Government

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This is the second in a seven-part series about mayors’ 2011 State of the City speeches.

In a nation where fiscal responsibility is in the spotlight, and groups are grappling for funding, the “State of the City” addresses we read clearly show that city governments are in search of ways to balance their budgets. Unfortunately, all too often city employees bear the brunt of this course of action. However, there is another way. The recipe for a different line of attack consists of one part prioritization, one part transparency, one part public participation and a big dash of creativity.

Budget cuts are never easy and may be the only policy more heart-wrenching to enact than tax increases. Kansas City’s Mayor, Mark Funkhouser, would certainly agree. Mayor Funkhouser stated that, “we have controlled spending. And we did it by laying people off. Actual, real human beings unfortunately hit the street this time.”  Dismissal of staffers is not an enjoyable task for any administrator and although job cuts did not happen in all cities, it has happened in many and will certainly continue in the future.  Peoria, Ill. is another example that reduced its workforce by more than 10% this past year.

There is a reason why giving someone the boot is tough; they are most often a hardworking individual supporting a family. Sometimes job cuts are a necessary tactic, but it appears in the speeches that some cities are using it as a default approach. There are other alternatives that do not decrease the number of public employees, but rather achieve responsible, fiscal, successes through improving the efficiency and structure in which the government operates. These alternatives keep public employees on the job and working, which is the right thing to do.

Getting back to our recipe for success, the first part calls for prioritization. The City of Bothell, Washington labels it “living within your means” others refer to it as “doing more, with less,” either way, financial responsibility and continued excellence is a key aspiration in cities. Governments need to be able to provide their citizens with top-notch services, yet do so while carefully stewarding over the tax revenue they receive. Albuquerque, N.M., for example, was able to reduce property crime by 19% in the same year it “balanced the budget and saved 25 million dollars – all without furloughs or layoffs.” How did the city do it? The mayor made property theft prevention a priority and the public joined the fight by providing useful tips to police officers.

Prioritization is vital to efficiency. Realizing that governments cannot do everything, but rather can provide certain services exceptionally, is imperative. As was demonstrated, all of this can be achieved without government lay-offs. The question then becomes, how do you prioritize?

Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina stated it well: “The simple truth is that if there’s one thing you should expect from your government it’s the truth.”  The process for identifying what to cut and what not to cut includes the second two items in our recipe; transparency (truth) and public participation. In places like Nampa, Idaho, cities are placing all of their audits online in an easy-to-read format so that the public can access the documents and know how their tax dollars are being spent. In Beaverton, Ore., the City Council released a call for a Blue Ribbon Task Force to help advise the Council on challenges the city faces as part of an overall dedication to inclusion and public involvement in the process. Neither city made any mention of staff losing their jobs, but demonstrated that the use of creative platforms such as the internet, social media, town-hall meetings, fiscal reports and budget forums are all great ways to get the community involved in making the tough decisions that affect the city’s future. Citizens react to creativity, inclusion and public deliberation in a positive way.

As all budgetary problems usually do, this idea boils down to some simple math.  If you search for priorities among the general public by educating them on the details of various proposals and then offer them a forum to express their views, all while including a little creativity in the process, you can find ways to solve almost any fiscal challenge.  In layman’s terms: prioritization + transparency + public participation + creativity = results. This process is not always easy, but it’s worth protecting a city’s valuable assets more commonly known as public employees.

Read about this project in more detail in the March 7th issue of NLC’s Nation’s Cities Weekly and The State of the Cities in 2011 on Citiesspeak.  Don’t forget to check back throughout the month of March for more discussion on the State of the Cities in 2011. Next up on March 9th: a look deeper in to sustainability initiatives that are driving economic recovery and protecting the environment.

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