The fun part of the city budget season is beginning, with council members scheduling "town halls" to discuss the issues with voters, take notes about what we want done with the money that’s available, and then go back downtown and (for the most part) vote for whatever the city manager tells them to support.
Not every council rep follows blindly, of course, but the budget is so complicated, the time available to review it relatively short, and the financial experience of most council reps is relatively low, creating what is probably an intentional vacuum of knowledge that only high-ranking city staff and the city manager can fill.
But that’s not what this post is about. Instead, I want to draw your attention to an interesting collection of actions and impacts that defies expectations. In a good way.
I’m a member of the city’s Commission on Productivity and Innovation, charged with helping city employees find more efficient ways to conduct city business. The commission has had some notable successes over the years, but like everything downtown right now, its viability is being questioned and its city staff support is likely to be eliminated, effectively killing the committee until better budget times.
At our most recent monthly meeting, we discussed a project we worked unsuccessfully on for three years — trying to find a way to streamline the city’s disposition of surplus real estate "slivers", or properties owned by the city but too small to be of much use to anyone else. (And by small, I mean pieces that are a couple of feet wide and maybe 20 feet long between an existing curb and a city residents’ property line. The land might be worth a little bit to the homeowner, but the city requirement that a property be surveyed prior to selling it makes it economically impossible to sell the property to the homeowner.) The reason to get rid of the "slivers": They cost a little money to maintain, a little money to manage, and most will never have any value to the city — there’s just no reason to keep most of them, and getting rid of them would actually save the city money while adding a little bit of value back to the tax rolls.
Current city policy doesn’t say this, but city bureaucracy does: The city’s real estate people can’t go out and hire an outside surveyor to survey a "sliver" because the real estate department doesn’t have enough budget money to survey a relatively worthless property. But in a perverse twist of bureaucratic fate, the city’s own surveying department — which decided, kind of on its own, that it had to "review" all surveys prior to selling property, but which also didn’t have time to review surveys of "slivers" prior to selling the property — was blocking the entire process. Not out of malice. Not intentionally. Just bureaucractically, because the city’s survey people didn’t trust outside surveyors to do the job right. So the end result was that the job simply was never done at all and few of the "sliver" properties were ever disposed.
Our committee tried discussing the issue with the appropriate parties at the city. We tried reasoning out the problem. We tried talking with the city surveyors’ department head. And the department head over that. We even tried yelling, and you know how much good that usually does. Finally, we gave up and chalked this win up to the bureaucracy.
Then, lo and behold, we were told at our last meeting that due to the city’s budget crisis, the city’s surveying department was being significantly curtailed and the city manager was recommending, as part of the upcoming city budget, that outside surveyors be used to survey city property for sale. Like "slivers".
Get it? When we looked at the problem, there wasn’t enough budget money available to hire outside surveyors, so we couldn’t solve the problem. But now that the city doesn’t have enough money to employ as many employee surveyors, the problem is solved because there’s money in the budget for outside surveyors.
First there wasn’t enough money. But now that there’s less money, there’s more money to do what we’re convinced was the right thing to do in the first place.
So there you have it: Your city and your fellow citizen volunteers at work, getting things done.
All of this is to say that, when all of the dust settles and the city’s budgetary bank account is empty for the upcoming year, there are going to be a whole lot of major changes occurring at city hall. Some of them may seem punitive and unnecessary from our vantage point today. Some of them undoubtably will be painful, both for citizens and the employees being laid off. But the moral of the above lesson is that maybe the pain today will lead to some type of improved city service tomorrow.
That’s the hope, anyway.