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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

We Can Do Better Long Beach..

Is the moon full? Is there something in the water? Something is not right at City Hall. Maybe it is the fact that more than half of the Council is potentially leaving and running for other offices, as is the Mayor.

Someone needs to come up with an explanation why the City budget isn't what it needs to be, nor is the process for involving the residents.

Two big issues stand out: a lack of real performance measures and a concerted effort to reduce the number of City Council meetings with therein reduces the opportunities to review the entire budget in a public setting.

As I wrote earlier, the proposed $3.2 billion dollar budget given to the City Council on August 1 by the Mayor contains a paltry few performance measures. Performance measures are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time bound. Without them, employees cannot gauge if they are doing a good job. More importantly, taxpayers don't get to see if they are getting the best return on their tax dollars.

When I asked in Council why they were again not included, I was told by the City Manager that the City could not afford to hire staff necessary to do performance measures. Then the Mayor chimed in (since it is really his budget) that there were performance measures. So once again I read the entire budget. Here is what I found:

For instance, the Parks, Recreation and Marine Department budgeted at over $52 million has exactly 4 performance measures: Marina Slips Occupancy, Water Usage in Median and Parks, Percentage of Animals Released to Owners, and Hours of Free After School Programming. PRM has numerous programs -- where are performance measures so that taxpayers can determine if their dollars are being used wisely?

Fire with a $94 million dollar budget has 3 performance measures: Response time to structure fires, Response time to dispatch calls, Percent of fires confined to room of origin. Where are the performance measures concerning fire inspections, ambulance transport rates, costs per transport, Safety plan checks, hazardous materials contained, arson investigations, etc. And most importantly, where are the measurements concerning response times for paramedic and medical service calls?

Public Works has a $146 million dollar budget and has only 4 performance measures listed in the budget document: Percentage of residential street rated in“good” or better condition, Number of potholes filled on a monthly basis, Number of traffic safety and parking investigations completed, Tons of debris diverted (Street Sweeping). How about the number of projects completed on time and under budget? Number of vehicles in the fleet and how quickly are they repaired?  How about measures on the many, many things this department does?

I could go through each department (and I have) to list what performance measures were include...and not included. 

There is a saying in organizational theory and behavior -- a topic I have taught several times at CSULB -- that if something is not measured, it cannot be managed. Bottom line, how do we know these are the right programs in the right departments at the right budget levels?

The Mayor's statement about the budget having "performance measures' reminds me of Bette Midler's famous parody of Mae West -- "I have my standards. They're low. But I have them."

Tonight, the Mayor pushed through cancelling the August 20th council meeting on a 7-1 vote (I voted no and DeLong was absent). The Mayor said that the City Manager had suggested the meeting be cancelled because several council members wanted time off during the summer. 

Oh my, I guess everyone forgot that the Mayor just gave the Council his budget on August 1 and that we need to meet in public to discuss the 12 or more departments, the proposed surplus, the infrastructure budget, our fees and services, etc. (By the way, the City Manager stated in his briefing today that the Mayor put the item on the agenda to cancel the meeting.)

Now, let me put this in perspective. We received the Mayor's budget on August 1 and we have until September 15 to pass a $3.2 BILLION dollar budget. We didn't work on the budget tonight (although we heard a sobering presentation on pensions costs and unfunded liabilities). We won't have a budget meeting on August 20 and we are not scheduled to meet on August 27th. So we come back to council on September 3 and then have one more meeting before the deadline.

The Mayor angrily responded to me at council (what else is new in the past 7 years...) and stated that we've been talking about the budget since March. Really Mayor? Then why did it take you until August 1 to give it to us? We didn't talk about this specific budget nor did we tell the public that we were "talking" about the budget and that is what the budget process in August and early September is all about.

Note that there is also no on-line interactive budgeting this year for residents to participate in. Was told "don't need them because we don't have any cuts this year." Really? We don't need citizen input on how we are going to spend their dollars? So much for civic engagement.

Come on Long Beach. We can do better. And we can get help. The International City Management Association (ICMA) assists local governments in assessing their performance over time and in comparing their performance with that of their peers. ICMA also has complied performance measures for all the city departments.

Why is this important? There is a growing expectation that taxpayer dollars be justified. So performance measurement helps evaluate the way a city does business and at the same time increases civic engagement and improves public transparency. And that would be better for all of us.

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