Some Random Thoughts on the Budget (re: the Commission’s Budget Meeting on Tuesday, September 14)

  • City authorities should accept that the City of Coral Gables is in a real long-term budget crisis that will only get worse unless significant cost cutting and a deep reorganization is performed by city management.
  • The budget should be based on a realistic and educated awareness of the economic, financial, community and business future of Coral Gables–city authorities may be way too optimistic about an early economic recovery.
  • The biggest danger to the financial future of the city is the huge unresolved pension and health care benefit liabilities–a recent step in reducing benefits for general employees needs to be followed with similar agreements with police and firefighters (the “golden employees” of Coral Gables).
  • Public security costs, which are more than 50% of the city’s budget, seem to be untouchable–these costs have to be reduced to solve the budget crisis.
  • The city has been too slow to make the internal organizational reforms to streamline services and reduce the number of middle and upper management staff that certainly would make it more efficient and help prioritize critical services to the citizens, businesses and visitors.  Someone (commissions or management) appears to resisting significant staff reductions at the middle and higher management levels.
  • The city authorities are greatly underestimating the negative impact of the economic recession and tax increases on individual taxpayers who have suffered huge losses in both their assets and incomes.  Many taxpayers are not able to sustain further property tax increases.
  • As far as the citizens know, the problem of Biltmore Hotel operator’s failure to pay its lease has been postponed until after the budget and taxes are approved.  This is concerning because we do not know if the future negotiation will lead to another favorable agreement with the Biltmore operator that in turn forgives significant debts to the city and loads the losses on taxpayers.

Letter about Police Communications: Just Wondering?

I take note of the letter currently in the Coral Gables Gazette about the staffing, overtime costs and overtime demands in the Communications Department.  The full letter can be found in the Coral Gables Gazette.   The following are some relevant extracts from the letter.

In January of 1999 the City built a beautiful communications center on the 4th floor of the police department.  At the time of the move there were 21 communication operators.  The staffing requirement at that time was 30 operators 10 per shift. The move to the new center was done with 9 operators less than what we needed. The operators were informed that 12 hour shifts were necessary for about a month due to the transitional period from going from a card system to completely being computerized.

In January of 2000, a few operators were hired and the mandatory 12 hour days were reduced to a mandatory 8 hours a week in overtime.  As the trainees came out of training the mandatory overtime went down to 4 hours a week and eventually the mandatory overtime was no longer required to run the center. Presently overtime is still necessary for staffing purposes as we are still not completely staffed due to some of the new hires quitting or not successfully completing the training process….

…At this time the department is still not fully staffed and we are still working overtime on a volunteer basis…

Regardless of what the City Manager has said, there have been measures put in place to decrease the overtime cost in the communications section. This includes a reduction in minimum staffing, reducing the amount of compensatory leave you can earn a month and revamping the training program. Based on the move and upgrade, to the new Communications Center, this situation was imposed in order to fully staff the center and provide the residents with the exceptional service they have always been use to…
I don’t completely understand the arguments (nor do I know what information was presented at the referenced Impasse Hearing).  But I have looked at the current and recent past budgets.
  • Exclusive of overtime pay, the average operator costs the city about $79,000 annually, including an average salary of $47,974 and benefits of $31,183.
  • The number of communications operators positions has remained steady at 32 from 2006 and then 33 to the present.
  • The city manager’s budget has cut overtime to total of $330,000 compared to a budgeted amount of $560,000 in 2007.
  • This looks like good management to me given the city’s financial situation.  Also, it would seem that the city is doing its best to keep the communications unit fully staffed although one always has people coming and going for different reasons.

Improving the City of Coral Gables: Information for the Citizen

The National League of Cities has a great set of documents that provide good practices and guidelines to help improve the operations of cities, small and large.  The National League of Cities publishes “City Practice Briefs” and “Municipal Action Guidelines” that distill good practices, experiences and effective ways of strengthening local government.  Some of these briefs and guides are very relevant to Coral Gables and useful for the interested citizen.

City Practice Briefs provide a selection of city practices and programs on specific topics to assist municipal officials faced with decisions. Each City Practice Brief provides a summary of five to ten city programs along with contact information and is designed to facilitate networking.

Municipal Action Guides provide helpful background information on various topics in a concise format intended to offer guidance to municipal officials faced with decisions.  Each Municipal Action Guide is designed to identify a current challenge, outline strategies for addressing the challenge, list action steps that can be taken, include examples of effective city practices and programs, and identify other resources that are available.

via City Practice Resources | About Cities | National League of Cities.

City of Coral Gables: Try Communicating with the Citizens

See below recommendations of good communication practices by the National League of Cities (NLC) to improve commuication and understanding between the city government and the citizenry.
One may conclude that very few (or none) of these suggestions have been considered or practiced by the city government of Coral Gables, except in those few instance required by law such as boards, budget hearings and selected items on the Commission’s agendas.
For example, the recent Impasse Hearing between the city and the general employees was not transmitted on TV locally.
A NLC document recommends the following steps to communicate effectively with the community.
  • Seek input from your citizens on (a) their needs/wants; (b) their evaluation of services; (c) their views on how services can be improved; and (d) priorities for goals and objectives.
  • Use focus groups to obtain input from citizens on what results should be tracked by the government.
  • Provide outcome information to citizens in forums, meetings, newsletters, media interviews, and web-sites.
  • Offer periodic briefings on local government accomplishments to neighborhood and other citizen groups.
  • Provide to citizens outcome information likely to be of greatest interest to them, such as breakouts of outcomes by neighborhoods.
  • Provide annual reports to citizens, neighborhood associations, and other community groups that highlight the results achieved.
  • When the government reports to its citizens or media, require that the information provided includes the bad with the good – but also includes explanations and plans to correct the problems.
  • Work with the media to encourage their use and proper understanding of results-based information.

Some Basic Budget Questions for the City

There are some big budget questions that have not been answered by the 2010-2011 Estimated Budget, City of Coral Gables.  We don’t know what the basic assumptions have been made about the future of the local economy, assumptions that are very critical for long-term budget planning.

  • Does the city’s management think that the local economy is on the road to recovery? While they may be an occasional blip up in real estate sales, real estate values are not likely to change for many years to come and there is even a risk of both deflation including housing (mentioned by a Federal Reserve Governor recently), an economic slow down (already started), or maybe even a second dip recession (less likely but not impossible).
  • Do the city authorities think that property values will soon started increasing (say) next year? Wouldn’t it be safer to not plan on increases in property values for several years that are greater that any greater than the rate of inflation (now virtually zero).
  • Does the city think that the large pension liability will be reduced without tough negotiations with city staff and their unions.  There is no sign of a get tough policy but one of increasing property taxes yet again.
  • Why are the highest paid city staff insulated from serious reductions in salaries and pension including the city manager and his senior staff.  They should take at least a 8 percent salary reduction this year.
  • Why are firefighters and police not taking important salary and pension reductions or cuts in staff positions?
  • How much are more are taxpayers going pay to have to pay to cover what from the Biltmore Hotel owes the city?
  • What has the museum cost the city?
  • Why has it taken so long to get around to important reorganizations in city government?

Maybe there are answers to these questions in the budget but they are hard to find.

Please suggest some more questions for the Commissioners and the City Manager.

A Few Private Sector Lessons for the City of Coral Gables

The City of Coral Gable is not following some of the most fundamental of preceps and experience of well managed private companies during a recession:

–Don’t be surprised by a recession by not having reserves and a backup plan;

–Most importantly, take advantage of the crisis to take the enterprise along a different path, reexamine it culture, evaluate its leaders, and refocus and strengthen services to consumers;

–During bad economic times, cut costs to retain the core staff;

–Cut way back on capital expenditures.

–Streamline the organization and its structure, including the redefinition of questionable units;

–Focus on the core values and services of the enterprise;

–Rethink the future path of expansion of the enterprise, there may well be a different path to prosperity in the future, very different from the past;

–It is a good time to refresh the staff with new ideas and training, and outstanding managers;