Ghost Gutting

By Robert Herold & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & ur city's three strong mayors have all sought to address the city's budget problems. John Powers believed that the city staff should pitch in. He also wanted to maintain existing levels of service. This left him to look for cost savings in staff compensation reductions. He saw the tradeoff between jobs and compensation and assumed -- naively, as it turned out -- that civil service employees would agree that some small reduction in the city's support for benefits would be in the staff's interest and most certainly in the city's interest.

Rather than negotiate the standard pay raise plus a percentage for benefits, Powers urged a single compensation package from which the unions could decide for membership whether to reduce the amount of pay increase or shift some small amount of benefit cost increase to the employee. This way, the burden, reasoned Powers, would be shared and jobs would be saved. But Powers didn't realize that when push comes to shove, all unions, including civil service unions, will dump jobs and throw members overboard before they accept even small compensation decreases (or even smaller increases). Powers was savaged by the civil service unions and didn't make it out of the primary when he next ran for office.

Mayor Jim West, experienced politician that he was, understood the unions, made the calculation and decided not to take them on. He paid them what they wanted but quietly cut jobs. Predictably, the unions didn't complain. To pay for this more expensive strategy, West parlayed his reputation as a "cost-cutting conservative" and just as quietly raised taxes.

Now along comes Mayor Dennis Hession, whose approach can best be characterized as the "ghost in the machine" strategy. Instead of laying out his own plan, as did Powers, or using the levers of his office and prior reputation to surreptitiously set his own course, as did West, Hession has turned to a small group of out-of-town consultants and paid them over a quarter-of-a-million dollars to be his ghost in the machine.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & ur mayor's ghost has arrived in the form of the "Report on the Organizational, Effectiveness, Efficiency and Turnaround Study: City of Spokane," produced by the Matrix consulting group. The mayor's "Structural Organizational Committee" will now consider implementation strategies while the mayor and his insider PR agency work to put a good spin on things.

As I've argued over and over again, it falls to our unelected strong mayor -- who has now announced he wants to be elected -- to provide us with his own ideas. Outside consultants will always operate on a larger margin of error, and Matrix's conclusions rest on thin empirical work viewed through a very narrow, rigid and outdated analytical lens.

Matrix's recommendations emerge from almost century-old scientific management methodology and are laced with aggregate comparative data without any local context. This is a cookie-cutter approach to cost savings; we need a customized plan that fits Spokane.

Matrix presumes to instruct us at the micro-management level. "Order" might be more accurate, as their recommendations come to us preceded by the word "should." Spokane "should" do this, "should" do that.

Consider the police section, where the consultants write: "The proactive element of field patrol should make up between 40 percent and 50 percent of an officer's day (on average)."

Oh, really? Just exactly why? The consultants don't make a case for their contention -- nor for that matter, do they even explain themselves.

Or consider Matrix's recommendation that the city "should" consider privatizing the golf courses. The consultants offer zero justification, apart from mentioning that other cities have tried this and made more money. Spokane, a few years back, voted down -- with gusto -- this identical proposal.

Further troubling, they fail to consider alternative policies as a way of addressing both efficiency and effectiveness. For example, is it possible that more homeless shelters might reduce police and fire calls, thereby reducing costs? Or, cultural taboos notwithstanding, could it be possible that we spend far too much time arresting marijuana users, even dealers?

Or consider the unintended costs associated with public works projects: I could make a case that the traffic engineers reduce housing values -- and thereby city tax revenues -- every time they cut down a city tree so that cars might "flow" more efficiently. I don't see this discussed or analyzed.

And would it not have been a good idea to consider new revenue streams? A more useful and imaginative study might have addressed the prospect of city-county consolidation, and explored the efficiency prospects that might be realized. And why wasn't annexation examined? What are the efficiency/effectiveness results from annexation, both for the city and the area being annexed? This study gives easy answers to hard questions, making it superficial and of questionable use.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he situation has me thinking of my very favorite Far Side cartoon. Two deer are basking in the shade. One deer has on his chest what looks like a bull's-eye. The other deer says, "Bummer of a birthmark, Hal."

By the time all our hunters -- from union leaders to City Council members to perhaps even department heads -- finish taking pot shots at this report, I'd bet money that Hession will feel like Hal. We will have spent far more on "review and comment" than we paid to have the report written. And we'll likely have little to show for the trouble.