Charlottesville receives quality of service and efficiency study

On February 17, 2009, Charlottesville City Council became the third locally elected body to receive the results of a resource management study conducted during 2008 on the quality and efficiency of their local government operations.  In January, the Charlottesville City Schools received their efficiency review findings and last week the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors received the results of a similar review .  All three studies were conducted by different outside organizations.

Podcast produced by Charlottesville Tomorrow * Player by Odeo

Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20090217-City-QOS

City Manager Gary O’Connell began the presentation with several reminders for City Council.  First, he said the report “just starts the discussion.”  Second, he said that it was important to remember that the consultants were asked to look at both the quality and level of service being provided by the City to its residents, not just at efficiencies that might be gained.

“It would be awfully easy to just come in and lop off a whole lot of services that people in this community find very valuable and important and are willing to pay for with their taxes,” said O’Connell.

The Quality of Service and Efficiency Study for the City of Charlottesville was conducted by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia .  The presentation of the findings was made by Brad Hammer who has spent the past two decades as Deputy County Administrator in Chesterfield County , Virginia (population 311,000 in 2008).

According to the report, “the study’s purpose was to make a detailed review of the City’s departments to determine how well their staffing, procedures, systems, and practices matched up to their Virginia peers and the best local government practices nationally.”

Hammer said it was no surprise that Charlottesville was found to be one of the leading cities in Virginia.  “Charlottesville actually goes beyond the norm in terms of the program array in human services, and in the courts, and in education that distinguishes it above other local governments in Virginia.”  According to Hammer, Charlottesville is most similar to Alexandria, VA. “Alexandria is a very compassionate city, just like [Charlottesville],” said Hammer.

Part of the study involved comparing Charlottesville’s per-capita expenditures against 39 other cities in Virginia.  Hammer said he found two City departments that had higher than normal costs, police and social services.  Hammer said the higher costs for these two particular departments were easily explained.

“Your demographics, and your crime statistics, and your socioeconomic data show that you do have a challenged population of folks who are struggling,” said Hammer.  “Some of these folks do not graduate from high school, some of these folks get involved in the criminal justice system…and his creates a need for a higher level of policing.”

Hammer said if you look at the national average for public safety staffing, Charlottesville should have seventeen fewer police officers. “But if you look at where the seventeen positions [exist], they are in community policing, neighborhood policing, and in drug task force operations.”

Hammer said the increased investment in police was “logical” for Charlottesville.  Similarly, the population of residents needing foster care and living at or below the poverty line explained the higher cost of social services.

The report notes that, “it is the opinion of the study team that Charlottesville delivers very competitively on ‘value’ for the taxpayer dollar.”  Yet, Hammer told Council the team was aware of complaints that the City’s tax rate should come down, particularly as compared to neighboring Albemarle County [95 cents in City vs. and effective tax rate of 61 cents in the County].

“Having a compassionate, world class, outstanding, high quality of place to live comes with a price,” said Hammer.  “It comes with a price because the City Council, and Councils before them, have made those policy decisions, those hard decisions, to spend money in a worthwhile way.”

When City Council took the opportunity to ask questions, Mayor Norris said the City needed to move towards a “new paradigm” with respect to helping people in poverty.

“You said many times in your presentation that we are a compassionate community based on the amount of funding we dedicate to programs for the disadvantaged,” said Norris.  “I would suggest that a more accurate measure of compassion is not how much money we are spending, but how successful we are at moving people out of poverty.”

Norris asked for more specifics on how other communities have been successful reducing poverty as opposed to comparisons of per capita costs alone.

Norris and O’Connell said there would be a future work session for Council and staff to more fully evaluate the study’s key recommendations.  O’Connell is expected to spend 90 days reviewing the report in order to bring back recommendations to Council.

Brian Wheeler