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
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.”)