|The Richmond Way
January 6, 2006
The Contra Costa Times took editorial recognition today of the municipal general fund comparison I distributed a couple weeks ago. The Times rightly characterized the survey as not being conclusive. I agree that it is a beginning place for introspection, not a solution.
Nevertheless, as we enter yet another budget planning cycle, which will be concluded six months from now, I hope the survey will play some small part in dismantling what has been characterized for decades as “The Richmond Way.”
What is The Richmond Way? It is a descriptive term used in exasperation by people who have to do business with or in the City of Richmond to describe processes, inefficiencies, frustrations, delays and attitudes that can be described in no other way because there is no other rational explanation.
What the municipal general fund comparison might be able to do is bring those who are formulating budgets to the realization that there may actually be better, more efficient and less expensive ways to do things and get better, or at least comparable, results in the process. These are commonly called best practices.
Let me provide some small, even trivial, but perhaps instructive examples that have come to my attention just in the last couple weeks:
Reveal Codes vs. Reveal Formatting: When editing WordPerfect documents, you apply character-based formatting to the text. The formatting is easily viewed in the "Reveal Codes" window. Word documents, on the other hand, use WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). When you apply any type of formatting, you instantly see the results on the screen. Word also offers a reveal formatting option (Shift+F1) but die-hard WordPerfect fans often miss the ability to edit codes to change format.
City legal staff also argues that WordPerfect is the legal standard of the industry, but plenty of successful law practices get along just fine without it. This not about a debate over which software is better. This is about organization-wide standardization once that decision has been made in order to work efficiently. This is about people who would rather defend inefficiency than get with the program.
Sec. 2. Clerk. It shall be the duty of the Clerk to keep a true record of the proceedings of the Council and record the same in proper books kept for that purpose. He shall have power to administer oaths in connection with all matters relating to the municipality.
Sec. 3. Attorney. The Attorney shall act as the legal adviser of the Council and any officer of the City who requests his advice. He shall prepare all ordinances and contracts whenever required so to do by the Council. He shall prosecute all violators of the City ordinances and shall represent the City in all actions.
Excuse me, but I didn’t see anything is the Charter about departments. The bottom line is that people are not doing their jobs and they are not collaborating. That’s unfortunate, you say, but what does that have to do with the high cost of government and substandard delivery of city services? I’ll save that for another day if you can’t figure it out.
· Let’s talk about street sweeping. Believe it or not, the street sweeping component is finally working pretty well. For the most part, signs are up, schedules are being adhered to and coordination with garbage collection has been resolved. But, you say, why does the street sweeper go down the middle of the street instead of sweeping the curbs where the debris is? The answer is because the Police Department has never embraced their responsibility to ticket and tow vehicles parked where the sweeping is supposed to take place. This is a failure of interdepartmental collaboration.
I could go on for days, but I think you get the idea. This is all part of the phenomenon we call “The Richmond Way.” If you have other examples, please share them.
POOR, BROKE RICHMOND. So destitute that the strapped city had to shut down recreation centers and libraries. So poor that city officials pushed an unpopular proposal for a Las Vegas, casino-style hotel and opposed regional park department plans to turn a beautiful shoreline property into public open space.
While few would dispute that Contra Costa County's second most populous city has had its financial challenges in the past, Richmond may not be as poor as the conventional wisdom would have us believe.
A survey commissioned by City Councilman Tom Butt, released earlier this week, found that compared to 14 other cities of the same size, Richmond has the third largest general fund budget per capita. That's slightly less than Berkeley -- more than Concord and Alameda.
Richmondites pay 17 percent more than average in taxes and licensing fees for fewer services. Yet unlike the residents of other cities, people in Richmond have to cope with chronically bad roads and fewer public services.
Butt says he paid for the $1,000 study out of his own pocket because he wanted to know how efficient the city was at spending public money.
The study compares the revenues to expenditures per capita for 15 cities of comparable size. It also contrasts the budgets for major city departments.
"There's this idea that other cities are very rich and Richmond is very poor," Butt said. "So to me it was a surprise to learn that we weren't at the bottom as far as revenue; we're near the top."
The study raises legitimate questions that merit a serious inquiry from the city administration. Why, for example, are people who live in Richmond paying more on average than their counterparts for everything from the City Council to police protection? The study found that Richmond's police costs were second only to Palo Alto's.
Are police costs higher because of rampant crime? Or is the police failure to make any significant dent in violent crime due in part to a poor use of available resources?
These are the kinds of questions that Richmondites, and their elected officials, need to be asking.
The study, which did not examine variables between cities that could account for higher administrative costs, is by no means conclusive. It offers a narrow snapshot, and as City Manager Bill Lindsay rightly points out, does not prove that there is financial mismanagement afoot.
However, despite its limited scope, the study is still a valuable tool, and Butt should be praised for taking the initiative to commission it. Its findings should offer some guidance as Lindsay continues his Herculean efforts to overhaul Richmond's dysfunctional city government.