Council to weigh money saving ideas
The City Council is considering a list of recommendations made by the Citizens’ Organizational Efficiency Review Committee (COERC) to increase the efficiency of city government while tightening purse strings.
The nine member committee based its findings on a three month review of the city’s organization. The recommendations would yield an estimated $4.7 million in expenditure savings and new revenues. “As we understand, the budget outlook for FY 2013-2014 could be bleak. With foresight of this situation, the City Council created the Citizens’ Organizational Efficiency Review Committee to develop options that could help close future budget gaps,” COERC Chairman Glenn Orr wrote in a letter to City Manager Lee Garrity, Mayor Allen Joines and members of the City Council. “…The recommendations put forward in the report that follows are absent political considerations and are the result of the Committee’s careful consideration of the programs and services offered by the city, their budgetary impact, the efficiency of these services, the Committee’s view of their relative importance to the community, and the potential impact on the community should the programs and services be altered or eliminated.”
Recommendations ran the gamut, from increasing fees for city inspections, cemetery plots and business privilege licenses, to reducing services such as backyard garbage collection and doing away with the city’s annual bulky item collection.
“They’re very comprehensive. They’ve developed some recommendations that do address some city inefficiencies but also some things
that would involve adjusting our user fees, particularly those that have not been increased in a number of years … but also the level of service that the city provides,” said Ben Rowe, director of the city’s Budget and Evaluation department. “…I think that that could potentially be helpful in our efforts to balance the budget in the coming year.”
Some recommendations, such as the committee’s suggestion to eliminate the city’s response to non-emergency calls, allowing the county EMS workers to handle them, were accepted largely without comment in City Council Committee meetings, but others, such as COERC’s recommendation that the city raise the maximum parking fine from $10 to $25, have inspired considerable discussion.
Jason Thiel, president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, circulated an email to his downtown merchants to make them aware of the potential change. Thiel said he would like to see parking fines stay the same, because he is concerned the higher fees, especially fees as high as $25 – which are greater than that of Raleigh, Greensboro and Durham – could deter would-be patrons of downtown businesses.
“I do have concerns about it being set too high. I think we’d all prefer it not go up at all,” Theil said. “…Parking fines are important because they allow for the street parking to turn over. The question is is $10 high enough to be a deterrent (of violating the parking times)? I think that is what they are going through.”
Former DWSP Chair Michael Suggs also opposes the fee increase. Suggs, who co-owns the popular downtown boutique Body and Soul with his wife, Dana, said downtown merchants already have to compete with Hanes Mall and other shopping centers, where parking is already free, and increasing the fines could discourage potential downtown customers.
“My concern is that we don’t want to discourage people from coming downtown and shopping,” he said. “We’re still in the midst of growing downtown and it’s my concern that we not do anything that would stunt that growth.”
Council members on the Public Works Committee are split on the issue. East Ward representative Derwin Montgomery said he would support an increase in fines because he believes that $10 fines aren’t enough to keep people from staying over their allotted parking time.
“I think $25 would be a major deterrent compared to the $10 fine,” Montgomery said. “But I think there may be some opportunities to find something in between, to do an increase that may be a little more palatable for the downtown community. That’s something that we have to be cognizant of in terms of making that decision.”
Another hot button issue for some Council members was COERC’s suggestion that the city convert some parks from active parks (with playgrounds, picnic shelters, etc.) to open space and eliminate underutilized tennis courts, for a savings of $290,000. The Southeast Ward’s James Taylor was quick to dispose of that suggestion when it was brought before the Community Development, Housing and General Government Committee.
“In my mind, and I believe the committees’ mind, that was dead on arrival,” Taylor declared. “It’s not something I’m looking to do. One of the reasons why I enjoy paying taxes is because my tax dollars go to parks and recreation. We’re talking about making the city a better place to live, work and relax and I think a reduction in that does the opposite.”
Dan Besse, who represents the Southwest Ward, also rejected the proposal, saying it would reduce the overall health and disproportionately affect lower income communities, where parks and tennis courts are more likely to be underutilized.
“There is a strong association between physical activity and health, and we know that we see in low income communities a higher rate of problems like heart disease and diabetes, associated, in part with lack of exercise,” Besse said. …We have to be careful when looking at the recommendations that come out of a budget efficiency committee that we don’t widen the gap to access between richer and poorer communities.”
Taylor also rejected the idea of eliminating bulky item collections, which COERC estimated would save the city $192,000, because he said it would be a disservice to his constituents, would likely increase illegal dumping and could warrant a reduction in city staff.
“The community that I represent relies very heavily on bulky item pickup,” he said. “They pay tax dollars for that service and I think it’s important that the city keep that in place.”
Council members and city leaders alike praised COERC members for their attention to detail and successful identification of numerous areas where the city can reduce its cost and operate more efficiently. Committee members will continue discussions of COERC’s recommendations later this month.
For more information or a schedule of Committee meeting times, visit www.cityofws.org or call City Link, 311.