Monday, August 29, 2011

A New Paradigm

Economic Development:  A hot topic to be sure.  Ask any City Councilor, any IDA or LDC member, or the like, and they'll tell you it's one side of the critical equation that will decide Geneva's future.  We've got to grow our economy, or we can hang it up as a community.

Two challenges:  What is it? and How do we do it?  Chances are, if you ask all the people I just mentioned (25+), you'll get a dozen or better answers.  Things like:

  • Job creation
  • Property tax relief
  • Boosting sales tax revenue
  • Attracting new residents
  • More/different businesses

The list goes on and on...The truth is, it's all of those things; and all of the things that contribute to those things...and while we're at it, the things that contribute to...well, you get the point.

Defining Economic Development is much easier than talking about the how.  In previous iterations, the City's Economic Development Office was consolidated with code enforcement officers, planners, grant administrators, and virtually every community development function you could think of.  The Director was forced, in any given day, to deal with an irate landlord who just failed their rental inspection, attend a water quality discussion, review leases for incubator tenants, and process payroll for 7 or 8 staffers.  Doesn't leave much time for business recruitment or retention does it?

The year after we split Economic Development into its own office, and removed the shackles of Code Enforcement and Home Ownership programs, the City spent nearly $200,000 in direct funds on the ED office and partner agencies.  That's not inclusive of the money spent by the Revolving Loan Fund, IDA, Tech Farm, Ontario County, and other partners.

That same year, the City held a summit of over 20 partner agencies.  The group identified dozens of tasks to move the City forward toward a unified economic development vision.  A year later, partners wait in the wings for direction.  Admittedly we have done little to harness the power of these critical and willing agencies.

This week, the City Council will hear representatives from Camoin Associates deliver an analysis of the Geneva market, and an assessment of our Economic Development vision, and our ability to reach our potential.   You can read the proposed strategy here

The short version is this:

1.  Council got the vision right.  Everything we want will drive the market, and is well within our grasp.
2.  It is completely unachievable if "the City" is the lead agency on all aspects.  We must harness the horsepower of our community partners to realize our vision.

Look for strategies on how to accomplish this in October.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Partnerships Can Stretch Dollars

Public-Private Partnerships come in all shapes and sizes.  Prior to my appointment in Geneva, I worked for a firm that managed the largest single partnership effort in municipal history.  The local government partnered with a large firm to provide all municipal services, with the exception of fire and police.  Here in Geneva, that may seem like a stretch.  However, little ole' Geneva has been partnering for years.

The vast majority of Geneva's IT services are delivered through such a partnership.  In fact, the City only employs a single person to help with computer equipment.  The rest, including website development, server maintenance, our public WiFi network, and a host of other computer related services are provided through a partnership with a private company.  Our neighborhood efforts are also bolstered by such parterships, as are the Comptroller and City Clerk's offices.  We estimate several hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs each year have been saved through this method.

Partnerships go two ways.  Forget about large corporations for a second.  The City also benefits from partnerships with some groups that may be familiar to you.  Groups like the Geneva Historical Society, Geneva Area Chamber of Commerce, Geneva Boys and Girls Club, and the Humane Society all deliver services in our great City.  In exchage, we provide public investments to assist in their efforts.

Think of as many City services as you can.  Then ask, "could we do that a different way?" and "Could a local not-for-profit benefit?"  Today, the City released a Request for Proposals for Not for Profit groups.  If you're affiliated with any group that could help (and be helped), please direct them to the City website.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Cost of Great Service

Nearly every organization, particularly in government, expends the greatest percentate of annual costs on personnel.  The City of Geneva is no different.

On any given day, the City has approximately 130 full time equivalent employees on the payroll.  These folks are spread across seven bargaining units, in addition to a limited number of "non-represented" managers and part time staff.  With bargaining units come multi-year agreements, with guaranteed increases; regardless of financial performance of the organization.

If all agreements hold, the City will spend $183,000 on pay increases for 2012.  This is exclusive of the state mandated 50% hike in New York State Retirement contributions (some upwards of 14% of salaries!).   The increase in cash compensation alone equates to nearly 3% of the anticpated property tax levy.  The total cash compensation for 2012 will eclipse the total property tax levy.

Sounds bleak, right?  Well, it's certainly not something to be ecstatic about, but we're not exactly throwing our hands up, either.  Over the last several years, we have made a march toward a more lean organization.  Since 2008, no net new positions have been added to the City organization.  In fact, in that same time period, 6 positions have been cut, with four of those coming from the Management Team. 

We will continue this march toward lean in the coming budget year.  We are evaluating all retirements to ensure that the best service delivery method is chosen.  The directive to staff is that "we are loyal only to the premise of making Geneva great, not to headcounts."  If technology or strategic partnerships can deliver the same service more efficiently, then we have a responsibility to evaluate that route.

While managing employee costs isn't the only method for achieving fiscal sustainability, as our largest cost center, it certainly cannot be avoided.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

911: Duplication or Enhanced Service?

Much has been made about the City's current public safety dispatch program.  Opponents of the current set-up cite it as a tremendous waste of taxpayer resources, resulting from duplication of a program that, in their eyes, is already provided by Ontario County.  Proponents of a local system point to the enhanced service provided by local dispatchers who understand City department operations, and are intimately familiar with City streets, and even individual properties.

In order to most effectively make a decision, one needs to understand the current dispatch operations, their impact on the budget, and the impact of making changes. 

So, what happens when you make a 911 call?  The short answer depends.  City Fire and Police Departments each man their own dispatch centers.  The Fire Department has 2 full time dispatchers and a host of part time individuals. The Police Department has three full time dispatch staff and also relies heavily on part time help.   Full time dispatchers work Monday through Friday (excluding holidays) with the rest of the coverage maintained by part time staff.

Back to the original question...when a caller dials 911, what happens?  As noted, it depends:

  • Cell calls:  All cell phone calls made within the City of Geneva are received by the Ontario or Seneca County Dispatch Center, depending on the location of origination of the call.  The call taker at the County then takes the caller information and transfers to the respective department dispatch.
  • Land Line calls:  These calls are taken by the Geneva Fire Department.  If calls are for fire service, the dispatcher immediately sounds the appropriate monitors and service is engaged.  If calls are for police service, the Fire dispatcher transfers the caller to the Police dispatcher, who then dispatches the call.  In the event that the call goes unanswered after 15 rings due to excess volume in the City, the call is rerouted to Ontario County who seeks an alternate dispatch method.

The Police and Fire departments also maintain land lines that many Geneva residents utilize in place of 911 service.  The land lines dial direct to the respective department.

Staff has evaluated two options for cost reductions.  Currently, the City expends over $400,000 between police and fire dispatch.  In order to obtain savings, the City is evaluating the following alternatives:

  • Countywide Consolidation:  As noted, Ontario County provides a dispatch service, and recently upgraded 911 facilities.  They have extended an offer to the City to provide dispatch services.  The City must evaluate the level of service to be provided and determine whether it is a comparable service to our current operation, or whether any reduction in service jeopardizes public safety.  Key decision makers must also evaluate what portion of dispatch costs can be eliminated through Countywide consolidation and decide whether this savings compensates for any service reduction.

  • Local Consolidation:  The provision of two separate dispatch services obviously contributes to increased cost.  Staff is evaluating a model in which the two operations are combined to a single site.  This would most likely occur at or in the same building as one of the existing dispatch locations.  Challenges exist for consolidation at either location.  Offenders who are arrested during evening hours are detained at the City's Public Safety Building (the site of the current police dispatch operation) prior to arraignment, which typically occurs the following morning.  State Code requires that inmates remain under physical (video link not permitted) observation for the duration of their detainment.  Staff would either need to develop an overnight arraingment arrangement, or locate dispatch at the site of current police dispatch operations.  Relocation from the Fire Department requires rerouting telecommunications equipment, including radios, 911 base, and the City's pullbox base.  Early estimates indicate this could be very expensive.
From an operational standpoint, many public safety professionals prefer the local consolidation option.  City staff are analyzing the amortization schedules for the cost of relocating either facility.  In the end, if a reasonable payback period is presumed, this would be a logical option.  That said, full savings would not be realized for the duration of the payback period.

This will most certainly be a topic of discussion as City Council and staff evaluate rising costs and stagnant revenue production into 2012.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Administrative and Community Services Updates

After City Council adopted the 2011 Budget, staff set to work on the 2011 Budget Implementation Plan.  In it's budget document, City Council set forward specific priorities and deliverables for each functional area.  From there, the City Manager developed directives on timelines and specific accomplishments to be realized as part of the program.

Check out the 2011 implementation plan for Administrative Services and Community Services.  Public Safety will follow in July.

These targets will be critical as we evaluate where Council wants to go in 2012.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cost Centers and Priorities

Most City departments will tell you that over 60% of their budgets are basically set before we even start the budget process.  As has been noted, the City's seven bargaining units comprise approximately 120 employees, and absorb a little over sixty percent of resources for their performance under contracted compensation terms.

When you look at employee costs, then add volatile cost centers like fuel (up over 30% since last year at this time) and power, now you're getting closer to 70%.  Finally, cap off major costs with mandated debt service payments, and departments have little to work with in terms of discretionary funding.

This week, City Council took a look at major cost centers, and began discussions about delivering core services, priorities for discretionary funds, and preferences for other potential support.

Personnel costs are the most significant of all our operational costs.  This year, nearly $9.8 million is currently forecast for costs including salaries and other compensation, health insurance costs for employees and retirees, and state retirement contributions.  While compensation costs are up slightly, the City saw a dramatic reduction in costs associated with health care benefits, thanks to our participation in the Finger Lakes Municipal Insurance Trust--a cooperative arrangement between 10 Finger Lakes municipalities to pool risk and experience in exchange for lower insurance premiums.  State retirement is up sharply this year, the cost of which is mandated by the State Retirement System.

As noted, fuel is up sharply from last year, as staff is forecasting a 30% increase over 2011 costs.  Thanks to capital investment by the City, we are aniticipating no growth in electricity costs, a traditionally volatile cost center.  The City's debt load is also anticipated to remain flat, at around $2 million next year.  Several smaller issues are anticipated to roll off the debt sheet, with new projects on Norwood, Sharon, Cross and Lewis coming into play for debt service next year.

View the City Manager's cost presentation here.

Revenue Forecasts

City staff began analyzing potential revenues for 2012 in May.  This can be a difficult exercise to undertake this early in the year, as we have only 1 quarter under our belts to use in forecasting.

Forecast expectations at this point can give us a good springboard to begin prioritizing costs, understanding that they may be refined over the course of the budget process, as more up to date information becomes available.  Items like property taxes are very easy to forecast by this point, as the entire roll has already been billed, and much of the revenue is in by early May. 

Other significant revenue items, like sales tax, are tougher to forecast as they come in throughout the year, and can range fairly significantly depending upon economic conditions.  For these items, we tend to err on the conservative side, especially with only a single quarter under our belt.

As of now, 2012 revenue growth expectations are fairly flat.  Property tax numbers appear to be holding steady, with minor additions to the taxable roll from expiration of PILOTs.  Staff is holding a very conservative sales tax forecast, although first quarter numbers look promising.

Overall, the conservative sales tax forecast has 2012 revenue projections down 3% from 2011 forecasts.  While this should be a significant motivator for the community, Council, and staff to begin prioritizing costs, care should be taken to observe sales tax and other revenue performance prior to cutting too deep.

Preliminary 2012 revenue forecasts can be found here.