Council briefed on government efficiency study

The Charlottesville City Council has reacted favorably to suggestions made in a $101,250 efficiency study, but members want direction from City Manager Maurice Jones before implementing any of the 83 recommendations.  

“I think it’s important for the public to see we are not bloated with excess staff or capacity,” said Councilor Kristin Szakos at a budget work session Tuesday.

The Novak Consulting Group was hired shortly after councilors adopted a $162 million operating budget for the current fiscal year.

“They found we are delivering high-quality services to our constituents here in the city of Charlottesville and that we are doing it in a very lean manner,” said Jones. “But there are areas of improvement that they have identified.”

Julia Novak, founder of the company, said her group’s task was to find efficiencies within a high-performing organization.

“When we come in and do work like this and put together a report, it’s a snapshot of an organization that is a very fast-moving train,” Novak said. “We’re excited about what’s good here in Charlottesville, but you asked us what you could do better.”

Michelle Ferguson, the organizational assessment practice leader for the company, said it is important for localities to catalog and filter recommendations from efficiency studies so they can be digested.

“The majority of the recommendations are really about operations,” Ferguson said.

The first recommendation is for the council to create an annual work plan to set priorities for city employees.

“When issues come forward, either through the governing body or through the public, your staff is very dedicated to respond,” Ferguson said. “What that often leads to, unfortunately, is an organization that is moving in too many directions. We saw that in some places.”

Ferguson acknowledged that the city has a strategic plan but said it does not have the detail needed to provide guidance on where staff should spend their time.

Szakos asked for advice on how a council of five members can agree on a work plan.

“We have one initiative after another without ever really saying which ones we want in what order and recognizing we can’t get them all done,” Szakos said.

“It’s figuring out the relationship between them and how they impact the organization,” Novak said.

Several of the recommendations call upon the city to better track the performance of its employees.

“We look for numbers, we look for data and we look for evidence of workload and output and how people account for and manager their time,” Ferguson said. “We recommend tracking some information so that when recommendations come to you through the budget process, you have the data to be able to make an informed decision.”

Specific departments recommended for tracking are the registrar, park maintenance workers and procurement. Another recommendation is to find better software to help applicants with development proposals that go through the Department of Neighborhood Development Services.

“There is software available to your applicants to be able to look at where their applications are online and to be able to schedule inspections online,” Ferguson said.

Another recommendation was for the city to work with the Charlottesville Albemarle Developers Roundtable for their insight on how to improve the development review process.

“You have so many businesses and people that want to locate here, and so being able to ensure that you have the quality of development and the timeliness of development that you all expect is critical,” Ferguson said.

Councilor Kathy Galvin noted that a similar meeting was not held with neighborhood leaders. Novak responded that two community meetings on the study were held in October, but if councilors wanted to proceed with that recommendation, the public should be engaged.

“If we’re accelerating development that our community finds unacceptable in its built outcomes but it’s not allowing our staff to change our zoning so that we get better outcomes, we’ve created a bit of a problem,” Galvin said.

Ferguson said there is no clear benchmark for how many planners a community needs.

“There’s no benchmark in the same way that you would have if you talked about police staffing,” Ferguson said. “Ensuring you have the right level of staffing in the planning department is a little more art than it is science.”

Some of the recommendations could directly impact the upcoming budget. One question before council is whether to spend $134,312 to fill a projected operating loss at Meadowcreek Golf Course in Pen Park.

Recommendation No. 35 addresses the issue.

“Should your golf course be subsidized?” Novak said. “That’s a policy decision for you all to have a conversation about.”

Mayor Mike Signer wanted advice on how the council should proceed.

“I think it’s appropriate for you as a governing body to receive it and request updates on implementation from your city manager,” Novak said. “That’s the best way to handle it.”

Jones pointed out staff have already compiled their reactions to the efficiency study.

“Some of the other recommendations will take some time and significant input from City Council,” Jones said. “We consider this the beginning of the discussion.”