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Five Things the City of Richmond Should Do to Get Back on Track

10.01.09 01:19 PM – Andy McDonald
Five Things the City of Richmond Should Do to Get Back On Track

There’s been much said lately about the financial crisis confronting the city of Richmond. Some have called for the mayor to resign, but I don’t think the city needs a change of public officials as much as it needs a change in procedures. Here are my five ideas to get the city back on track:

1. Hire An Experienced, Savvy S.O.B. as City Manager, Then Get Out of the Way. Richmond City Commissioner Rita Smart recommended the city conduct a management audit to see which employees are doing their jobs and which are expendable. David Evans is a good manager, but right now the city needs someone with a different kind of temperment - someone who would fire someone else first before taking a pay cut himself. The hiring of a new city manager - one who will come to the job with a cold-blooded objectivity - would be the best person to do such an audit. The city should bring in an experienced (and probably very expensive) manager who will do a makeover of the city staff. The commission should give him or her carte blanche when it comes to the final decision to hire or fire. No interference, no political games, and the power to fire anyone for a minimum of three years. It will cause discord at first, but in the long run the city will end up improving morale and retaining good employees because effective workers will be rewarded and ineffective employees will be booted.

2. Have the Auditor Do An Annual Public Presentation to the City Commission. Having looked at the financial audit reports, I was astounded not by what they said, but what they didn’t say. There was no admonition to have management curtail optimistic revenue estimates. There was no warning about the catastrophic impact of rising health care costs and hazardous duty insurance rates for police and fire personnel, and those familiar with city government saw those problems coming from a mile away. Every year in the city of Berea, a partner in the city’s auditing firm gives a public briefing on the results of that year’s financial audit, telling officials what’s been done right and what needs improvement. That’s a process that should start in Richmond. People are blaming commissioners for the financial mess the city is in, but from my perspective, those audit reports are curiously devoid of any rigorous analysis concerning the city’s financial course. Sure, the commissioners were all officers on the bridge of the ship that is the city of Richmond, but the ship struck an iceberg for one of two reasons: either the commissioners were given information of dubious value or they ignored good advice. But there’s a stark difference between the warnings “Iceberg dead ahead, Captain!” and “Oh, if you think of it, you might want to look out for icebergs.” The audit reports struck me as being closer to the latter.

3. Take Politics Out of Management Decisions: Oy. Where to start? I guess it’s pretty simple. If Connie Lawson had her druthers a couple of years back, the city of Richmond would now be part of consolidated 911, saving, according to some, $300,000 annually. Let’s be honest: It hasn’t happened because some commissioners want to retain control over those city dispatch employees. Likewise, I suspect the city’s past hiring of police chiefs has been based not on who would run the most professional department, but instead on who would be at the beck and call of certain commissioners. Thankfully, that culture is changing at the police department because a couple of city officials have the foresight to let the chief choose who he hires. But those commissioners who insist on interfering with city departments and meddling in hiring merely to serve their own power base need to be shown the door in 2010.

4. Keep Connie Lawson. Ditching Mayor Connie Lawson is akin to cutting off a leg because you’ve fallen behind in a race. Before the recession, her administration was particularly effective at lobbying business and industry to locate in Richmond. She’s also worked on state and federal legislators to get funds for the improvement of the city, whether for reconstruction of sidewalks or local roads. Lawson also took a proactive approach to finding ways to preserve foreclosed homes so that local property values wouldn’t plunge. Her experience in realty, it seems, came in pretty handy. Finally she enjoys good working relationships with the city of Berea and Madison County, which helped spur the construction of an inter-city water pipeline to avoid the kind of water shortage crisis Richmond had four years back. If ever Richmond needed good partnerships with the other two local governments, it’s right now. Lawson should stick around.


5. Don't Panic. In the best case scenario, the city got caught flat footed in overestimating revenues. Things were great and it was looking like the party would never end. With all the construction going on, money was rolling in from permits and inspections. Manufacturing in the city was going so well that plant managers were complaining about having too many jobs for too few workers. Retailers, restaurants and manufacturers were signing on the dotted line to come to Richmond. Then the sub-mortgage crisis swept over the economy like a tsunami. Suddenly things like the cost of hazardous duty benefits and increases in health care rates finally caught up with the city. That’s the bad news. The good news is that what goes down must eventually come up again. The city will see an upturn in revenues due to bigger payrolls, more construction and more retail activity. As bad as things look right now, Richmond will start growing again.

The trick is seizing this opportunity to make local government more efficient and less prone to political gamesmanship. It won’t be easy, nor will it be popular, but it has to be done.

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