Upper Arlington News

Guest column

Decisions are needed about city's future direction

While the work of the Citizen Financial Review Task Force is behind us, our findings and recommendations to city council will likely live on in community conversation in the weeks and months ahead.

And rightly so -- as we approach our centennial, Upper Arlington is at a crossroads and the direction we collectively choose to take will shape our next 100 years.

I had the honor of serving as chairman for the cost reduction subcommittee for the task force. My fellow subcommittee chairmen -- John Ness and Michele Hoyle -- as well as task force Chairman Rich Simpson, feel strongly that all members of the community should take the time to read, consider and discuss our report with your friends and neighbors, city staff and your elected officials.

We also agreed it might be useful for each of us to pen a column that captures the primary findings of our respective committees, with a final summation from Chairman Simpson to help you better understand how we completed our charge from Upper Arlington City Council.

The cost reduction subcommittee met on numerous occasions to work through detailed layers of information about the city's efforts to date to cut costs, how UA compares to other similar communities, and to gauge whether additional steps towards greater efficiencies could be taken. We met with the heads of every major department for a detailed run-through of their budgets and cost reduction efforts over time. We also asked for a "what if" scenario from staff to show what level of reductions would be necessary in order to fund the city's 10-year capital improvements program without any additional revenues.

Lastly, we reviewed the 2013 community survey results, highlighting resident preferences for city services and where they felt service and cost reductions might be made.

Our findings led us to a point of frustration in some ways -- so much has been accomplished by the administration that we found ourselves unable to fulfill our third charge of identifying any additional significant options for cost savings.

Here are some highlights of our findings:

* Every major city department has reduced staffing and operating expenses.

* The Police Division has trimmed its workforce, found alternate funding sources for two positions and reduced overtime expenses. When compared to other like communities, UA has 1.3 officers per 1,000 residents compared to an average of 2.12 per 1,000 elsewhere.

* Similarly, the Fire Division has been trimming its workforce -- with an entire level of middle management slated for elimination by the close of 2014 -- and operates fewer response units when compared to other communities of a similar size.

* With approximately 73 percent of the city budget used to support personnel costs, streamlining the organization has been a priority. From a height of 304 employees from 1991 to 2008, the city had shrunk operations by 36 positions. Privatization of solid waste services in 2009 removed another 20 employees from the payroll, and in the last five years, 30 additional positions have been eliminated.

* UA's total expenditures per capita are below many central Ohio communities and approximately half those of Worthington, Powell, Westerville and Dublin.

In short, UA has been reimagining how it can provide services for a number of years, in response to and anticipation of decisions at the state level, as attempts are made to balance its own budget and jump-start Ohio's economy. In fact, the city has been able to hold expenditures below 2008 levels for five consecutive years, producing cumulative savings of $3.4 million.

While the city can always be looking for ways to be more efficient as a matter of routine practice, opportunities for significant budget reductions are simply not possible without a noticeable cut to core services. That said, the city has positioned itself to be able to continue at current service levels with the resources it has.

The big financial question that UA needs to answer is how to fund its significant infrastructure needs.

In our next column, John Ness, chairman of the capital improvements program subcommittee, will provide an overview of his team's findings and recommendations for implementing the city's 10-year, $113-million capital improvements program.

If you have yet to read our report, you can find it in your summer edition of the UA Insight newsletter, or at uaoh.net.

Again, we encourage you to become informed on this most important of topics, especially as city council prepares to discuss our report in the coming weeks and to take action on the recommendations.

Jack Hershey is a member of the Citizen Financial Review Task Force and chaired its cost reduction subcommittee.

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