Why Bad Ideas Won’t Die


Once upon a time, many years ago there was a young city manager in a backwood town in the south. He had been told he was a bright young man, and had done well in city manager school. He was full of ideas on how to serve the public to make things better for the community and the people in the community, realizing you can’t get rich being a city manager. Getting rich was not his issue – he wanted to help people and thought he could bring his education and ideas to bear on the many problems city’s face. He was also very entrepreneurial – he tried to organize the city to operate like the business that it was by trying to make operations more efficient, providing training to employees that basically never had any, developing mechanisms to track work performed, and updating infrastructure (piping, curbs, sewers, treatment plants). He spent 60-80 hours a week, including countless nights each week at his job, no doubt underpaid. For the most part, the employees bought into his ideas because, well, he never asked them to do something he wouldn’t do, and often would go into the field to work with them on important projects to show them what was needed or what he expected. The staff became well trained and efficient. So far, so good.

Over time he noticed a few interesting trends, but because he was young, he did not have a point of reference to understand them all. One he noticed was that the elected officials always asked for multiple alternatives. But when he presented more than one, he found that the worst option, the one most difficult to implement, or the one that would create added problems, always seemed to be the one chosen. Bad options were like a magnet for these elected officials. So he became more reluctant to present more than one option because doing so made his job much more difficult and, well the point of presenting options that have issues seems counterproductive to good government. Of course that created some friction.

Ok now that you are done laughing hysterically at this young man, keep in mind the story is true and happened less than 30 years ago, so this is not ancient history. It took a few years after frustration and stress took their toll and this young man moved on in his career. City management was just too stressful. It took a few more years to understand that answer to the options riddle – the bad options were chosen because some was lobbying the elected officials for that bad option. Why? Because those lobbying always knew someone who could benefit from the need to “fix” the problem created by that option. So the idealist meets the reality – kind of deflating. He moved on from there.

So how does that affect utilities? Think about your budgets, and especially your capital budgets. Figure out what you NEED to do your job, and then figure out if you have a budget strategy to get it. Do you pad your budget to insure the budget office doesn’t arbitrarily cut your request, because “that’s what they do?” Do your elected officials delay capital projects because it is an election year and they do not want to raise rates? Does the city manager remove the new hires because he needs more money to be diverted to the general fund? Sound familiar? Welcome to the game this young man found so many years ago. 30 years and things definitely have not improved. When you run a business, you know what you need to do the job. You should be able to ask for what you need, and get it without a lot of conflict. Your budget and finance directors should be SUPPORT positions, not gatekeepers. Their job is to find money to pay for operations. You should set the need, and they find the funds, but it doesn’t work that way does it?

The budget battle is a huge expense for every community, and one that largely provides no real benefit but detracts from productivity. None of the game playing helps the utility or the ratepayers, just like the bad options don’t help the community at large either. Yet it is funny that over time, city managers have moved away from people with technical backgrounds in public works and public administration toward people with business experience. The argument is that we need to run the city more like a business, so this should be a good fit. But it is not in part because there is a lack of understanding of the underlying public works services. Public works is a service, not a business. As a result, we see far too much political expediency as opposed to benefits to the payors.

From a business perspective, creating a series of enterprise funds like water, sewer, storm water, roads, and parks is a step in the right direction, but only if those separate enterprises (think companies) can stand on their own. For example, it is completely inappropriate to use your utility to fund the general fund. Borrow from it, yes; some purchased services, yes; huge subsidies, no. When large amounts of funding are diverted, it means that both the general fund and the utility suffer (and for the moment let’s ignore the legal issue if the utility rate base is not the same as the city tax base). Business rarely diverts large revenue streams from other enterprises to keep them afloat for long, so why in government, do business people pursue this path? In the business world, if the general fund was such a loser, we’d cut it loose, or spin it off and make it stand on its own. Ok we can’t really cut the general fund loose (police and fire are in there and we love them), but making is stand on its own is what finance, budget and city managers should be pushing elected officials to do. That would make set up a system of full-cost operations, which will allow residents to understand the true cost of their services, which is completely appropriate. Subsidizing services at the expense of public health is not a good long-term policy is it? . And while you are at if general fund, where are those surpluses we ran to allow us to reduce borrowing for capital projects?

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