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Diagnosing for Dollars 

by Doug Nadvornick & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or many people, the thing about the city of Spokane's new Efficiency and Effectiveness Study is that it's so... personal.





The $260,000 report, issued by the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Matrix Consulting Group, suggests more than 160 changes, and it recommends that the city eliminate jobs in the police, fire, streets, wastewater and solid waste departments.





"When someone reads that it's 10 jobs cut through attrition in a 400-person department, that's one thing," city spokeswoman Marlene Feist says. "When a city employee reads that two people in a five-person department should be cut, it's easier for them to see, 'Hey, that's me.'"


"I've had lots of calls from people," Public Works Director Dave Mandyke says. "And I tell them, 'It's just a report with some recommendations. Don't get excited yet.'"





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Matrix study was commissioned last summer by Mayor Dennis Hession and City Council members who wanted an outside appraisal of the city's operations. "Sometimes you need to step outside and take a look at things the insiders don't see," Hession said at a news conference to announce the report's release last week.





The study was also driven, in part, by the need to reduce the constant budgetary crises in City Hall. Voters released some of the pressure two Novembers ago when they approved a two-year lifting of the lid on property taxes, allowing the city temporarily to assess more than the legally allowable limit in property taxes. That has helped city officials to balance the last two budgets without major spending cuts. But that temporary relief will go away at the end of this year.





Hession says he and city department heads "see the potential for significant savings this year" by implementing some of the study's recommendations, although they haven't yet decided which they'll pick. The mayor says his cabinet is starting an eight-week "strategic planning effort," in which the study's ideas will be funneled onto immediate, short-term and long-term lists.





"It's important to get this to staff so they can start to digest it," says Acting Deputy Mayor John Pilcher, who is the man Hession has designated to lead the way in evaluating and implementing the study.





"I'm trying to be open-minded," Pilcher says. "I won't lie to you -- not everything they recommended made me happy. There are some hard recommendations in my area" -- he's also the city's economic development director -- "and they're asking us to take a close look at areas I think are working well."





One area of resistance: a proposal to abolish the city's development incentives group. "Maybe there are some ways [that group] can do its work better," Pilcher says, "but it is already very effective."





Pilcher says the Building and Planning departments are already implementing some of the recommended changes. "We're launching an online permitting system that will make it easier to get permits in cases where it isn't necessary to check building or remodeling plans first."





Pilcher adds that the new system is expected to be up and running for plumbing permits in two months. "It may not save the city a lot of money," he says, "but it will save people and businesses money and time."





The Matrix group also recommends that the city do what's necessary to adopt impact fees to pay for growth-related infrastructure and to charge developers for the city's cost of reviewing plans for new single-family housing projects.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & P & lt;/span & ublic Works Director Dave Mandyke has mixed feelings about the process of being interviewed and providing data for the efficiency study. "It's like going in for a colonscopy," he says. "It's about as enjoyable."





But Mandyke thinks the final result offers some good suggestions. "We'll quickly implement some parts, some probably not," he says. "As an offshoot, the thought process this starts might be the real benefit."





The Matrix study proposes that the city become more efficient in picking up garbage, bringing Spokane more in line with trash pickup in other cities. It proposes the city make its garbage routes longer so that collectors increase the average number of containers they empty each day from 647 to 825.


"We know we can improve," Mandyke says. "If that's something the team was honing in on, that means there's probably something we need to pay attention to."





Eventually, the study says, the city should employ fewer garbage collectors to


pick up the same amount of garbage.





There are a few recommendations with which Mandyke does not agree. One would abolish the city's seven-member asphalt grinding team that resurfaces streets, in favor of private crews that would "chip seal" streets as regular maintenance. "We don't think that will help us do a better job of protecting our streets," he says. But the city has agreed to try a pilot "chip seal" project this summer.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & ouncil President Joe Shogan has been reading the 489-page efficiency report. "I've got Post-it notes all over the place," he says.


What in the study caught his eye?





"The parts that involve personnel reductions," he says. "Police and fire [both projected to lose at least 10 employees]. Also the asphalt grinding crew recommendation and cutting back on our sewer cleaning."





Shogan has asked each of his six council colleagues to analyze three of the sections in the study so they can offer their input to the mayor and his cabinet.





Councilmembers Nancy McLaughlin and Rob Crow think the study is generally good but incomplete. "There's no chapter about the City Council," McLaughlin says. "There's nothing about the mayor and his office. There's nothing about human services or the performance of our lobbyist in the legislature."





"I'd have liked to have seen some pros and cons on some of the recommendations to help us make decisions," Crow adds. He expects council members to ask for more detail in some areas. Whether they'll get the information they want without having to shell out more money to Matrix isn't known. Matrix's president didn't return our calls for comment.





It's also not known if the council will be invited to the mayor's table to discuss the recommendations, given his hesitation last week over passing out copies of the report to council members. McLaughlin worries that the study could become a political football that will be kicked around by Mayor Hession, who has announced he'll run for re-election, and Councilmember Al French, who, some expect, will challenge him.

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