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Long-Term View: Fewer Workers, Same Work

by Paul Bass | Apr 25, 2013 4:02 pm

(7) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: City Hall, City Budget

City of New Haven Violent crime has fallen to a 10-year low, but remains higher than in Bridgeport. Meanwhile, the parks department does the same work it did 13 years ago—with half the workers.

Those long-view snapshots, and others, emerged amid City Hall’s annual ritual of selling the mayor’s proposed budget.

That process is taking place now as city department heads take turns appearing at a series of public hearings before the Board of Aldermen’s Finance Committee. The next such hearing takes place at City Hall Tuesday at 6 p.m.; it focuses on how the Board of Ed, the housing authority, the Commission on Equal Opportunities, and special services districts plan to keep spending public money.

In a PowerPoint presentation during a hearing last Thursday night, city Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts offered decades of context for the budget requests of the departments under his purview. He showed not just how they’d operate under next fiscal year’s $503 million proposed budget (Click here to read Smuts’ annual report overview), but how they’ve performed since the 1980s and 1990s—and how, in the case of handling citizen complaints, they’ll operate in years to come.

Looking Back: Doing More With Less

Paul Bass Photo Government officials like Smuts have been under pressure for two decades now to squeeze more productivity out of fewer people.

For example, Smuts reported, the number of parks department employees has dropped 45.9 percent since 2000. The department is budgeted at $4.8 million, Smuts reported—39.5 percent less (in inflation-adjusted dollars) than 12 years ago. Click here to read the presentation he made to aldermen showing how the trees still get trimmed, the grass mowed, the rec programs run.

How has the parks department managed to do more with less?

Smuts gave some examples: Instead of having staffers spend time scheduling Little League baseball games, they started relying on volunteers who run the leagues. As the staff shrank through attrition, the department found ways to mow the grass and pick up trash with fewer staff hours in part by “addressing abuse of sick time and worker compensation,” in part by “doing a better job of engaging” (working with and motivating) staffers. (The department did stop assuming one responsibility: parks security.)

A similar story has played out in the Department of Public Works.

The department’s staff shrank 29.3 percent since 2001, 13.2 percent since 2008, according to Smuts—without any “significant” drop in what gets done. The overall budget shrank, too. (Click here for Smuts’ full presentation about what and how much gets done.)

Smuts offered a number of examples of how public works did more with less money: It has managed to spend $2 million a year less than in the past in handling waste; $195,730 of that came from the shift to single-stream recycling. The department instituted better “controls” at the transfer station, checking IDs to stop out-of-towners or commercial haulers from using the service reserved only for city residents.

Meanwhile, the city no longer required that the parks department have its trucks serviced at the public-works garage. Public works has had to bid for that business, as well as truck-repair business from other city departments. In some cases, the public works garage figured out how to work more efficiently and cheaply. It ended up getting not just the parks department’s business, but business from the housing authority. In other cases, departments saved money by getting repairs done more cheaply in private garages. The public-works garage lost a bid to service the Board of Ed’s trucks—but the private winner had to reduce costs 40 percent to keep the contract, saving taxpayers money.

In the end, public works brought in more revenue from the garage division while needing fewer staffers, Smuts said.

Smuts’ presentation showed a similar story for other departments: The library system has shrunk from 74 to 38 general fund employees since 2001, for instance. (It currently has two other employees, who are paid through off-budget special funds.) In that time, while library hours have varied, the system has added two new locations—the Wilson branch in the Hill and the ReadMobile library on wheels—to the pre-existing four branches. (That department’s report is here.)

Looking Back: Crime’s Drop Here & Elsewhere

When it came to violent crime, Smuts’ presentation offered a long-range look that showed progress in town, but progress that didn’t always look more impressive than gains made in comparable cities, as crime has dropped nationwide.

The chart at the top of this story demonstrates the value of looking at violent crime stats not only year-by-year but over decades. The chart shows that shootings rose dramatically in town along with the decline of community policing in the aughts, and have now returned (at least for now) to where they’d been before that decline.

As this chart shows, violent and property crimes dropped faster in New Haven than across the country since 1990 (the first time New Haven rolled out community policing). But the rate of both those types of crime were and remain higher here than nationwide.

Cities tend to have more crime than other communities, of course. This chart from Smuts’ presentation shows New Haven beginning the 1990s with a violent crime rate higher than Hartford’s, Bridgeport’s, and Providence’s. Violent crime has since then fallen faster here than in those other cities. But it remains lower in Bridgeport and Providence, and roughly the same in Hartford.

Looking Ahead: The “Click” Future

Tucked into the public works report are two charts that point to a possible future trend in New Haven government’s interaction with citizens.

A few years back city government experimented with its own new York City-style “311” system to establish a direct line for citizens to phone in complaints. The idea was get that information directly to department heads and monitor how quickly they follow through. The city never convinced many citizens to use it.

Instead, they flocked to a better system developed outside City Hall: SeeClickFix, a citizen problem-reporting-and-tracking system developed by New Haven’s own Ben Berkowitz. His company has seen attracted national awards and angel investment. Out of its Chapel Street offices, it runs sites for citizens in over 10,000 cities all over the world.

SeeClickFix has remained a significant presence in New Haven—including City Hall. Smuts and his department heads use the site the way they originally intended to use City Hall’s own 311. They respond to complaints posted there, in some cases even urging people to post information there as the most efficient way to get a city response. As a result, the city has fielded and responded to more citizen inquiries each year through SeeClickFix, according to Smuts. Some of his departments already route all complaints through the system, including those coming in by phone; he said others “soon” will, too.

So far in this fiscal year, the city received 2,957 tree-trimming requests, 216 pothole problem reports, and 154 illegal dumping complaints through SeeClickFix.

The greatest number of SeeClickFix requests, 530, came from East Rock’s Ward 8—where Berkowitz happened to live until the most recent citywide redistricting. The fewest came from Ward 11 in the Heights. But citizens in every ward communicated with City Hall through SeeClick Fix, as this chart shows.

New Haven’s growth mirrors a broader interest in SeeClickFix as a tool to connect citizens to local government. The company launched its first site, covering New Haven, in 2008. Of the over 10,000 cities that now have the site, 140, including New Haven, are officially clients, meaning the local governments pay a licensing fee to use SeeClickFix software as a primary means of responding to citizen requests through the web and mobile phones. New Haven will pay about $30,000 next year, up from about $20,000 this year, to expand how it uses the service, according to Berkowitz. It will launch a question-and-answer platform to help field other kinds of requests, for instance, and will use the service to let people know about parking bans and the dates of important public hearings.

This story highlights one reporter’s choice of interesting charts and data from Smuts’ presentation. You can find a host of others charts that tell by downloading the presentations about each of the departments under Smut’s purview from this web page. (Scroll down to “Annual Department Reviews.”)

 

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Comments

posted by: Wildwest on April 25, 2013  8:37pm

I’m sure Paul Bass will delete this but stats dont mean a thing when the cops aren’t busting even half the criminals in this city. They are being ignored because of tight budgets and we are all being fed a big load of crap, period, end of sentence.

posted by: AMDC on April 26, 2013  5:42am

Fewer people;more work= pay cuts for those workers.  And for those who are crowing over the decimation of the Parks Dept., take a look at our parks and public spaces that are not around the Green or Yale and you will see the true result of those cuts. It is a disgrace that officials are trying to pass off savage cuts as a benefit.  People are plenty stupid but we are not that stupid and we are not blind.  The quality of life in NH is declining as downtown in gentrified for the new yuppies who can afford $1600.00 for a small apartment and Yale-affiliates/suburbanites who come to play in NH on taxpayers’ dime….  The rest of us get the crumbs. It is a sad time for those who love New Haven , as I do.

posted by: Noteworthy on April 26, 2013  9:14am

The number of departments doing more with less are few and far between - and only represent a small fraction of the overall budget. Police, Fire and Education are doing with a lot more. Police and Fire in particular have almost limitless overtime. The proposed budget adds more cops, more firemen, closes nothing, reduces nothing and actually increases overtime in both departments. Because of planned and built in inefficiencies, the education budget is not doing more with less either.

AMDC is correct - the condition of our parks and parkways like Edgewood are really not in very good shape or are mowed sloppily. The soccer fields on Ella Grasso which we spent so much money on, remain locked and unused nearly all the time. I generally advocate for less spending, and believe this budget like others before it, should be cut substantially. I also suggest that our priorities are wrong and that we short some of these budgets to pay for wasted money in the top three budgets - cops, fire and education and on a secondary level, on programs that yield poor to non-existing results commensurate with the expense.

posted by: TheMadcap on April 26, 2013  10:17am

AMDC is right about the parks. It’s not even small parks either. East Shore is beautiful, well, could be beautiful. Big, playgrounds, softball fields, many trails, a nice view. Last two times I was there though it was a disaster, last time you couldn’t leave the trails because the grass was above my knees.(and being near 6’2”, my knees are a bit higher than most)

posted by: anonymous on April 26, 2013  1:30pm

We’re not only doing less with less, we’re getting less in overall return because the salaries and benefits now overwhelmingly flow out of New Haven to the suburbs.

We’ve massively raised taxes, and therefore rents, on the lower-income families and immigrants who live here in order to pay higher benefits (including $150,000/year for life retirement pensions) to people who don’t live here.

posted by: ohnonotagain on April 26, 2013  6:36pm

Rob, take a look at the East Shore park and tell me that cutting the workforce hasn’t disrupted services. We are not getting the same for less. I walk several times a week in the park and cannot believe it’s condition. It is filthy with litter and discarded food. Trees have fallen and remain laying there in massive size. There are rat boxes along the pavilion building (once used for ice skating)that have been moved away from the building and clearly have been that way for months upon months upon months. That tells me no baiting is going on. I especially love the rat droppings around this building.
Please don’t insult my and others intelligence with your fluffy report.
Frankly at this point I cannot wait for a turn over of this administration. Not all, but enough….. as far as you…... I have to say that I am shocked at your BS!

posted by: anonymous on April 27, 2013  2:42pm

“We are not getting the same for less.”

Ditto for snow clearance.

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