May 3, 2007

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Publisher's Note: Not just cheaper, more efficient
By Jody Reese

City and town governments in New Hampshire struggle mightily with how much money they have to spend every year and with good reason. The cost of local government and schools primarily comes from local property tax payers without regard for who can afford it.

It’s a classic conflict between the services we want and the money we are willing to pay for them. In Manchester, that conflict is front and center in the discussion over Mayor Frank Guinta’s 2008 budget. The mayor has held spending below the rate of inflation at about 1 percent and predicts this will lead to a small tax cut. Because of increases in health care costs, employee salaries, debt service and just general inflation, many departments will lose staff. In a speech to the Queen City Rotary Club last week, the mayor said the departments losing staff will need to be become more efficient and learn to make each employee more productive.

Unfortunately, the mayor’s call for productivity wasn’t backed up with much ideas or action. If city government were a business, the mayor would need a turnaround plan. I haven’t seen such a plan. Instead, the mayor relies on rhetoric to convince voters that he’s going to make government better with less money. Great, but how is he going to do that?

Driving up Manchester’s Orange Street today, I was greeted by trash, scattered in the gutters. It was as if someone dumped out bag after bag of garbage. Where were the street cleaners?

A few weeks back I did see a street cleaner at about 11 p.m. cleaning some streets near the Hippo office, but because cars were still parked on the street the little cleaner vehicle did a pretty crummy job. I wonder, is it efficient for Manchester to clean dark streets filled with cars at 11 p.m.?

Politicians have talked efficiency in government since there was government — and look where we are today. Talk is cheap, real cheap.

If Guinta wants to lower taxes and increase the quality of city services then he needs a turn-around plan, much like one you might see at Ford or Delta Airlines. For example, reducing staff might be a great idea after you have increased training of the staff that will stay on so they can do more faster. Another classic productivity-gainer is technology. Perhaps the mayor could look at ways to use more advanced machinery to reduce the cost of snow removal, park clean-ups or garbage collection. Of course, all this costs more money in the short run and politicians usually can’t see past the next election. If Manchester or any town government is to see local taxes fall and the quality of services stay the same, more productivity must be found. Just talking about it won’t get the job done.

In an odd way, it might take spending more money now to save tax payers more money in three or four years.