|Johnson Upbeat on Richmond
February 14, 2005
When Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson, who specializes in skewering local government, turns upbeat instead of beating up on Richmond City government, this is news. Enjoy today’s column from Chip:
The city of Richmond, knocked to the canvas a year ago by a thundering self-inflicted financial blow, is back on its feet after an eight count.
Led by local government turnaround specialist Phil Batchelor, the city has wiped out a $35 million deficit and recruited a new city manager from the affluent Contra Costa suburb of Orinda, who takes over the reins today.
And the city is hoping to rehire police and firefighters and reopen community centers and libraries that it was forced to close last year.
Under new checks and balances, 14 credit cards issued to top city officials were canceled because of problems with unauthorized expenditures. And Cal-cards, which allow local government employees to buy building materials and supplies at discount rates, were canceled as a result of misuse.
Batchelor, Richmond's interim city manager, said in his state of the city address last month that the city has turned the corner. Contra Costa's former county administrator outlined some of the 64 changes in financial record- keeping and accounting that contributed to the city's budget hole.
The city had no accounting practices for either receiving payments or making them, Batchelor said. He has also nudged the City Council to adopt governmental auditing standards, require monthly financial reports from all major city departments and halt the questionable practice of using one-time revenue sources to fund city services.
At the height of the financial crisis, the city's public works department was so understaffed that it could not keep trash -- or dead animal carcasses -- cleared regularly from city streets.
Batchelor successfully negotiated a reduced benefits package for employees. Fire and police union officials accepted a 9 percent cut in benefits and other city employees accepted an 8 percent reduction.
After more than a year of penny-pinching policies, the city has restructured its debt and has restored its bond rating, Batchelor said. Now that the turnaround effort has stopped the financial bloodletting, city officials are upbeat about the future -- albeit unsure about where that will lead them.
"We've moved from a position of wondering if we'd ever get out from under this cloud and now the challenge is to put it all back together,'' said Councilman Tom Butt. "The problems aren't new, we've always had them, but for the first time city officials are admitting them. It's like the start of a 12- step program.''
With the city back on stable ground, it's appropriate that new City Manager Bill Lindsay and the county's former human resources director and assistant administrator, Leslie Knight, will start their new jobs on Valentine's Day.
Lindsay, 48, is bubbling with enthusiasm over his new $200,000-a-year post, but it's not for the salary bump. Lindsay is in the position to create his own management team and rebuild city government.
One of his first tasks will be finding department heads for the city's fire, police, housing and finance departments, and he expects that search will take up to six months to complete.
At the same time, the city will begin the process of hiring back some of more than 300 employees who were laid off last year, which represented one- third of the city's entire workforce.
Lindsay also wants the city's branch library system and recreational facilities up and running as soon as possible -- the Bookmobile program is expected to be back on the road by the end of this month.
He sees as much potential as he sees problems, with opportunities including the task of finding a way to bring an Indian gaming casino to Point Molate. The council last year agreed to sell the property for $50 million to an Emeryville developer and Harrah's.
"I wonder if people were saying, 'Who would want this job?' when (Coach) Bill Walsh took over the San Francisco 49ers in 1979,'' Lindsay said.
"I look forward to working with a City Council that is interested in developing the city's potential,'' he said. "They went through tough financial times, made tough decisions to right the ship and they don't want to go there again.''
Lindsay was city manager in Orinda for nearly 10 years before Batchelor hired him with the enticement that Richmond could be reshaped into a thriving Bay Area city.
"He will have the ability to rebuild the city's entire management team almost from scratch,'' Butt said. "It's a rare opportunity, and I'm optimistic about it.''
Batchelor plans, like an old soldier, to fade away.
He said he will be available to consult with Lindsay about any questions concerning the city, but his official role in Richmond has ended.
But the plans he laid have become the city's blueprint for the restoration of the community. Even the City Council, a sometimes unruly body, is now writing a code of ethics that it will be expected to follow.
"Working in Richmond has been one of the highlights of my career,'' Batchelor said. "I could come in here every day and make a difference in a city hungry for leadership.''
E-mail Chip Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.