COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE HAWKINS

Creative agencies find economies, maintain service

La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid reported last year that while the city has about 10,000 more residents now than it did 10 years ago, it has fewer employees. I‘ve asked several people who follow La Mesa’s city government why that is so. The common answer was there was no choice.

Saying the city had to do it gives the fact short shrift. It was done. That deserves recognition.

A survey of La Mesa residents, released by UT-San Diego, says those who live in the city are generally happy with the way the administration is operating. The reduction in the number of employees has had minimal, if any, impact on safety or other services.

The San Diego County Water Authority has similar economies. Through attrition and some layoffs the Water Authority’s work force is 16 percent smaller than in previous years and overall administrative costs are down, says Dennis Cushman, Water Authority assistant general manager.

I am unaware of any survey of water users as it applies to the Water Authority. Since it is at least once removed from a direct relationship with water consumers, it would matter little.

Suffice it to say, that the homes and businesses in San Diego County all have potable water. The Water Authority continues to develop new resources so that it can continue providing that water. Doing that with a lower administrative cost is also worthy of recognition.

The Cajon Valley Union School District staff has submitted to the school board a different way of bringing the district into the electronic age.

Because of the dramatic decline in property values, the district was faced with a dilemma regarding the remaining bonding authority from its earlier bond program.

The options were: issue high-cost capital appreciation bonds; put the program on hold until property values rise significantly; or ask voters to reauthorize its remaining bonding authority, allowing the bonds to continue to be issued at current low rates and allowing projects to stay on track.

Voters were asked and agreed to a reauthorization. Other districts, notably Poway, borrowed long-term money at roughly 10 times the repayment level using capital appreciation bonds.

In order to bring the Cajon Valley schools into the electronic world the district is updating its IT infrastructure. The administration plans to purchase various electronic devices that have a relatively short life span for student use. Staff has suggested the school board use less expensive three-year loans for those purchases. Cajon Valley should be commended for this much less expensive approach.

There is a dispute about the authority to buy this kind of classroom equipment with bond money. That is being argued elsewhere.

Other districts, including San Diego Unified, had paid for similar devices with loans of 20 years or more, though SDUSD now may be considering the shorter loans. Taking 20 or more years to pay for something that might last six or eight is a poor use of taxpayer funds.

Finally, the Escondido Fire department, also stung by budget constraints, had an empty fire station. Authorized by its citizens, the district built the station but with declining income it became apparent that a traditional approach to putting personnel and equipment in the building would be prohibitively expensive. So, using fresh eyes and ideas, the department’s leadership studied use needs.

As he explained to the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, Escondido Fire Chief Mike Lowry says his department can maintain quality response service with improved response times by redesigning the typical equipment and personnel combinations for each of the stations.

Using the traditional approach and incorporating the new station in the mix would cost about $3 million more per year. By placing appropriate staff at skill levels necessary to manage the variety of calls but avoiding redundancy throughout the system, Lowry says he can bring that new station on line for just over $1 million.

As a result, the Taxpayers Association gave Escondido a Golden Watchdog award for that approach.

When I hear “we need more money” to provide a government service, I recoil. The common claim is the only way to get things done is with more tax dollars.

Clearly, there are circumstances that require more dollars. Finding ways to meet those expanded needs, sometimes for the same or less money, should be the objective of every public official. It appears these four agencies are paying attention to that concept. Hopefully they are not alone.

George Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart.

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