June 26, 2012

Stortz offers budget suggestions to city

Former Mayor William Stortz sent the following suggestions about the city budget to Mayor Art Ward and Finance Chairman Rich Miecznikowski to help begin the discussion of how the city can resolve  a looming multi-million dollar budget gap next year:

William Stortz
Mayor Ward, Chairman Miecznikowski,
It is encouraging to hear that a more proactive effort will be made to address Bristol’s shaky financial situation. I sincerely hope that there will be some meaningful follow through and action in this regard.
Back on October 23, 2007, just before I left office, I wrote a memo to the then Board of Finance, with a copy to the then City Council, urging them to seriously consider the apparent deteriorating national economic situation and to consider taking some action... Earlier I had asked most department heads to analyze what impact this less than rosy financial situation would have on the city of Bristol, and the various departments. Their replies were available to the BOF and Council. Councilman Ward and Chairman Rich, among others, received copies.
This request was made because of the constant reporting in various papers of concerns by many economists and business leaders. One had only to follow what was happening and being reported to be concerned. I felt that it was not too early to look at the possible ramifications to Bristol, department by department.
A similar situation is seemingly on the horizon; maybe not as bad, but in light of the fact that we have not fully recovered, we could be facing some tough times again.
I mention this, not because I want to see it happen, but because I would hope that a strong effort would be made to address all of our systemic problems so that we are not as unprepared as we were last time.
With that in mind, I would like to make some suggestions that might help address the overall local problem. Admittedly some are not new, some are not of a large impact. But they all add up. Also, many can be implemented right away, realizing immediate savings. Many can be implemented by management; some may require discussion with the bargaining units. But, I can assure you that the bargaining units are willing to talk: in fact they do have some meaningful ideas to offer.
Remember, virtually all expenditures are approved by city officials, elected and/or appointed, and that the same goes for revenue projections. Maybe that is one area that should be carefully scrutinized.
First, we should have all departments prepare a description of their department’s responsibilities, scope of involvement. Then have this reviewed by the mayor and council to assure that there is agreement in what a department is charged with, what they have to budget for. May sound simplistic, but it will define their role,  while at the same time provide a better understanding to the board of Finance and the Council as to who does what. I am sure it will be enlightening to many, maybe even some department heads. It will be useful now and at future budget times. It will be helpful to those relatively new members, Council and BOF. At the same time, it is a must if there is any consideration of privatization. I do not see how one can consider any effort at privatization without it, and certainly would look askance at any firm that made any proposal without it. Maybe it has been done already, in that regard.
Second, unless there have been some changes, the city does not monitor and control individual departments and line items by month. I suggest that a system be implemented that required each department to project monthly expenditures (this can be done AFTER the budget is approved). Then as monthly expenditures are recorded, a regular analysis would be easy, and provide that months variation and year to date variation.
While Bristol’s accounting system is somewhat archaic, the system I described above is relatively easy and inexpensive to implement. It would be better if it was part of the overall system, but that may take some money. This simplistic report could be easily made available for review.
First, by requiring the department heads to budget by month, more thought would have to go into the process.  Second, a history would be acquired, helpful in future reviews of the budget .Third; redirection could take place sooner, as soon as each month is analyzed. Full benefit would take some time, but would provide for a more accountable budget, and budget review process.
Revenue. It is easy to get more revenue: just tax more, and charge more fees. But that doesn’t improve the situation. Three thoughts: 1), expedite the booting process. This only affects those that fail to pay their car taxes. The city has shown some leniency, but there are many, many, more out there. 2) If it is against the law to have an out of state registered vehicle past a certain time frame, enforce that law. Again, only affects those in violation of the law. There are many, many out of state vehicles out there. 3) Work with the mayor and the legislators to address the issue that would preclude a vehicle can being sold, or traded in, with taxes that are due not being paid. In reality those taxes are lost forever. There should be some way to prevent this: the state should want to help develop a system to prevent this from happening.  In reality, without booting, one could avoid paying taxes indefinitely. Results might take some time, but even the start of a system would result in some payments. This would affect all municipalities, and would only affect those in arrears.
Fourth: surrounding towns are reporting that they are taking in thousands of dollars per month in Blight Penalties.   There is way too much blight in Bristol. By setting stiff penalties and enforcing these penalties, Bristol could take in significant revenue, AND clean up the city. Not a long term solution, but will help in the short term on both revenue and improving the city.
As I said earlier there are other ways to increase revenue, but in most cases, it is just another form of taxation. Cost cutting and efficiencies should be looked at first. And you might get some interesting and workable ideas if you would get the public involved AND spend some time listening to the workers. I know that they have mentioned many ideas to me.
I’ll list a number of possibilities, none with major savings, but none that will lay people off. They may result in reduced staff needs over time. But all savings add up while efforts are made to implement those that have bigger ramifications.
1.       Bi weekly paychecks

2.        Direct deposit of paychecks

3.       3.turn off one set of street lights on N. Main Street

4.       Eliminate or at least reduce use of aerator on Boulevard, and any other location.

5.       Reduce number of extraneous committees, to eliminate need for staff overtime

6.       Reinstitute study to combine City building maintenance, started 5 years ago, and halted. Study may still be available.

7.       Review the street sweeping program. We no longer sand, so streets are not as dirty. Maybe a smaller sweeper might be less expensive and still the job. Also, do all streets have to be swept?

8.       Review cash flow process. Do we deposit so as to get the maximum return?

9.       Review Purchasing policy. Could we do better in any way? Are there adequate controls and reviews?

10.   Require 5-7 year analysis of all new expenditures/projects. Will the city be committed to maintain, repair etc.?

11.    Review Investment policies. Are we getting maximum return?

12.    Look at the planned and or guaranteed overtime.  While this item must be negotiated, there are opportunities for reductions.

13.    Consolidate Emergency Management and The Hazardous Waste position under Police and Fire. Would reduce cost and provide a better service.

14.   Look at elimination of Perfect Attendance rewards.

15.   Eliminate any rental of space by the city, wherever possible.

I know that many of these are minor, but if implemented, would add to a significant amount.
I agree that larger savings are needed, but in most cases, will take time. Any implementation of savings, when made known, will help create a positive attitude among the citizens, and will probably provide more positive suggestions.
There are many others, some which will require negotiations.  The bargaining units have to be included in the process and will certainly consider giving up some of the fluff benefits. Get them involved in the process.
Lastly, I would again point out that virtually all spending decisions are made by you the city officials, elected and appointed, and that most decisions have a budgetary impact beyond the immediate year. That seems to be forgotten, but it does create ongoing costs which have to be met.
I may come up with some additional thoughts, as ideas come from many people during conversations. I will pass them on, for as a taxpayer, as someone who has a great appreciation for what Bristol is, and one who has been involved for many years, I do want to see this effort move forward. We cannot afford not to be successful: our future and the future of our children depend on it.

The first meeting of the city's new budget task force is at 5:15 p.m. today in the City Council chambers on the first floor of City Hall.

Copyright 2012. All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

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