Change Is Good (and Saves Money) -- Right?

By Mike Clark-Madison

Remember all those people -- including the candidates -- complaining last month about how hard it was to do business with the city? Toby Futrell heard them. "We need to operate lean and efficiently and do that before we cut direct service," she said of her "Innovation Initiative," now in its second year, to get City Hall working smarter. "Reducing bureaucratic barriers to providing customer-friendly service is a top priority."

But Futrell isn't just running scared from the likes of Brad Meltzer. "For me, the silver lining [of the bust] is the ability to reshape government. All corporations in a downturn have a chance to rethink and reshape their service delivery. And we have that opportunity now," she told the City Council, pointing out that in her decades with the city she's worked on several misbegotten efforts to clean up City Hall's act. "The boom set us off running, and now we have a 1970s business model throughout the organization."

Among the consequences: 12, count 'em, 12 departments have a role in the city's much-reviled development review and permitting process. Austin is the only major city without a single phone number to call 24/7 to get service. And while the city's Information Systems department, says Assistant City Manager John Stephens, "needs to be as flexible and nimble as possible" and has "highly qualified" technicians and front-line supervisors, it also had four or five layers of management to slow down decisions and make projects more expensive. Thirteen of those I.S. managers got pink-slipped earlier this month, the city's first official "layoffs" of the budget season. "Simply changing the management structure will save $1.5 million, and the ongoing review may lead us to save $3 million," says Futrell. And that's before we even look at decentralizing the I.S. function itself."

The I.S. cuts were, at least in part, spawned by employee suggestions -- whether by I.S. employees or their inside-City Hall customers is not known -- along with an external review of City Hall's books and org-charts by private-sector executives. And so it goes throughout City Hall; Futrell says as of mid-May, she'd had around 500 meetings with employees to talk about the Innovation Initiative, and at that point her team was evaluating 1,743 ideas. (That's out of 2,408 ideas submitted; more than 1,600 of those had occurred to different city employees and were submitted more than once.) "No savings is too small," Futrell says.

Some proposed savings are, in fact, small -- like changing the oil in city cars less often, projected to save $150,000. But since that would pay several salaries, and at least some at City Hall are still clinging to the idea of a no-layoff budget, the authors of those ideas may get more than a gold star. And in some cases you're talking about real money. The Fire Dept., for example, says it can save $1 million a year by putting smaller-than-normal "squad" or "minipumper" engines -- with only two firefighters each -- in Fire Stations 4 and 9, in Clarksville and Hyde Park, and putting larger-than-normal "quint" units -- with five firefighters but on one multipurpose truck instead of two -- in low-call-volume stations 19 (on Balcones Drive) and 40 (under construction on East Parmer Lane).

While nobody's blown heavy yet about the quints -- which fire Chief Gary Warren says can save the city nearly $10,000, or 50%, on each emergency call -- central-city residents, not used to thinking of themselves as over-served, have already raised alarms about the squad plan. (Especially in Hyde Park, where the fight to save Station 9 was a signal moment in neighborhood history.) The rationale is that, since the city center is so dense with existing stations, you can bring firefighters in from three or four (or six) stations in the three-minute average response time for one fire truck in most of Austin.

Which would be necessary, since you need four firefighters to actually go into a burning building, so if Station 4 or 9 is the first responder, they'd have to wait for backup before going in. However, structure fires only account for 2% of AFD's call volume -- 60% is medical first response, for which the smaller trucks are actually better suited, or at least so argue Warren, Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman, and the department's own rank and file. The squad and quint plan, Warren told the council, hits AFD's target of $1 million in re-engineering savings "and doesn't compromise the level of service, doesn't demote anyone, cut their pay, or lay them off."

But in what might be a preview of a very long summer for Futrell, only Daryl Slusher gave props to Warren for "doing what we asked him to." (Futrell noted that "we have new service models that will look and feel very different to you, and the chief was one of the few who took a really hard look at this.") Slusher's colleagues -- particularly Jackie Goodman and Danny Thomas -- conveyed a distinct lack of enthusiasm, though the specific concerns of Hyde Park and Clarksville went unstated. "I don't think anyone is charging that you're trying to cut back on the public safety that we have," the mayor pro tem told Warren and Huffman. "But I hope we can find a set of priorities that allows public safety to not be stinted in any way." Gosh, you'd think she was running for mayor.

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