POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 15, 2010:
City, In Search of Self
Can the long lost Oil Capitol kick the habit? Study suggests T-Town might be overdoing its effort to service infrastructure
Since it came into power in December, the administration of Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. has spent most of its time trying to get a grip on the city's budget crisis and implement changes designed to keep municipal government afloat through one of the worst financial crises in its history.
It has not been a set of circumstances that has left much time for reflection or analysis of how the city can avoid a similar trap in the future, according to Terry Simonson, the mayor's chief of staff.
"A great deal of what has happened over the last nine months has been reactionary," he said, describing the approach the administration was forced to adopt. "There was no strategic plan here, no organized plan for dealing with this. It was failing and collapsing on so many fronts."
The nature of the crisis was plain from the first day of the Bartlett administration, when a shockingly bad city sales tax receipts report from the state Tax Commission indicated $10 million would have to be trimmed from a budget that already had been cut twice in order to make ends meet. An equally gloomy forecast from the city's Finance Department left little doubt the picture was not going to improve for quite a while.
City officials in every department were scrambling to come up with a plan for dealing with the budget deficit in the short run. So was Simonson, but he also viewed the situation as good time to dust off an idea he had floated in 2003, when he served as the chief of staff for Mayor Bill LaFortune.
That proposal -- to bring in an independent firm to examine the city's operations from top to bottom and recommend changes that would lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness -- went nowhere at the time. Simonson boxed up his research and put it into storage, believing it could be put to use at some point in the future.
That time finally came last winter. Simonson recalled last week how he pulled the mayor aside and presented the idea to him.
"I said, 'We need help, and I know who can help us. If it's all right with you, I'd like to bring some people in here,'" he said. "Within 72 hours, a team of KPMG people were on their way to meet with us. Today, we saw the fruit of that."
Simonson couldn't help but feel a sense of satisfaction in the wake of a special City Council meeting and press conference at City Hall on Sept. 9 during which the results of just such an examination were unveiled. Using input from 457 city employees, KPMG -- the firm that produced the 282-page study, which is available online at cityoftulsa.org -- uncovered and reviewed 1,512 city services that are provided by 20 departments across the city.
There were several notable findings, but the focus at last week's press conference centered on just a handful. Of the more than 1,500 services the city provides, according to the study, 61 percent are not mandated. For an equal percentage, there is no basis to determine if the service the city provides is competitive with that of other private or public organizations. The study indicates that for 69 percent of those services, benchmarks for cost effectiveness should exist.
Those numbers certainly attracted the attention of Bartlett, who had only seen the final report on Sept. 8.
"What did leap out at me was the number of services the city provides, and a lot of them are probably unnecessary. And when you saw something that was not operating efficiently, it was pretty obvious," he said.
The mayor cited as an example the city's grant-writing program, which involves the work of individuals across 15 departments.
"If that can be concentrated, we may find that not as many people are necessary, and those individuals can be given the opportunity to do something somewhere else and be more productive," he said.
Simonson, who already had read the report three times by the Sept. 9 unveiling, said he was surprised to find the city provided more than 1,500 services. To put that number in perspective, Bartlett pointed out a similar study of the municipal government in Indianapolis by KPMG identified approximately 800 city services there.
"I don't think there is a soul who works for this city, no matter how long they've worked here, who would have guessed that," Simonson said.
He also pointed to the finding that most city services have no benchmarks to determine their effectiveness.
"There's no standard to know success from failure, and that's got to change," he said.
Bartlett and Simonson had spent months anticipating the release of the report -- its price tag of approximately $400,000 was covered by the Tulsa Community Foundation -- and the mayor said last week's public unveiling felt like giving birth. Now he looks forward to taking advantage of its findings.
A newly created Management Review Office headed by City Auditor Preston Doerflinger will take on the role of evaluating the report and implementing its findings.
Doerflinger said the office will begin with a staff of three people (reassigned from other responsibilities at the city), so the effort also will rely on the work of individuals from existing city departments as it progresses.
"We'll begin by establishing the actual office, then identify and assess the feasibility of the recommendations," he said. "Basically, I'm going to work."
A steering committee made up of business and philanthropic leaders, city councilors, and representatives of the mayor's office and the county reviewed a draft form of the report at mid-summer and already has identified 21 areas in which the Management Review Office will be expected to concentrate its attention initially, Doerflinger said.
"Within those areas, we'll identify some likely areas where we can go looking for some successes early on that we can build on," he said.
Doerflinger cautioned citizens against expecting too much too soon from the study.
"It's not days and weeks, it's months and years," he said of the time frame for change.
Simonson estimated it would take two to three months before the Management Review Office is ready to act on some of the findings, matching Bartlett's estimate that it would be December or January before the study's impact begins to be felt.
The mayor took the step of presenting some of the findings to city employees in the form of a letter on Sept. 8, a missive designed in many ways to alleviate fears that the report -- which recommends the elimination of some city services, the consolidation of some and the outsourcing of others -- will be used simply as an excuse to do away with jobs. Bartlett characterized the findings in the report as opportunities, not mandates.
"In going through this process, there is one thing that has become crystal clear to me: We have great employees, but we have outdated or inefficient processes, systems and programs," he stated in his letter. "You are being asked to work within those systems or processes, and it's time to take a hard look at how we can change things to help you perform and create a city that can effectively deliver core services."
Doerflinger had a more direct message for city employees.
"The thing I want to convey is, it is possible to save money and save your job," he said. "Our goal is not job elimination."
Still, Doerflinger acknowledged there is likely to be considerable anxiety on the part of many city employees as changes are discussed and implemented. The mayor said he would be working with city department heads to assure that rank-and-file employees play an active role in the process.
"We're going to strongly encourage them to use this as a positive opportunity to make the city work better," he said. "If we don't, our only way to approach saving money is the same old method of laying people off. If we can avoid that and keep people employed, as well as provide a well-managed city government, we've really accomplished something."
Doerflinger sounded somewhat hopeful that city employees would buy into the changes, rather than opposing them, pointing out that much of the data included in the report came from those employees.
"The way I'm approaching it is, we've got a lot of great employees," he said. "But there are a lot of systems and process they work under that they've expressed frustration about. We're doing a lot of things the same way we were doing them 30 years ago."
Simonson said the study provides city officials with a tool for getting back to the basics. He said a theme of "the three Rs" should guide the city's approach: restoring core services, reforming the purpose of city government and redirecting its direction of governing.
"This report shows us how to do all three of those," he said.
The mayor's chief of staff did little to downplay expectations about the kind of impact the report could have.
"Cities across the country that are struggling like this would die for what we have been given today," he said. "A city as exceptional as Tulsa deserves nothing less than what we got today."
Bartlett was only a little more guarded in his expectations.
"It could be extremely significant," he said. "Besides giving us the ability to become much more efficient in the way we manage our business, we can do it without a tax increase. Economic development opportunities can and will be created from this. The people who are innovators out there will see that Tulsa is becoming an innovative city and is not approaching governance in the same old way, but in a progressive, transparent way."
On a purely political level, the release of the study also allows the mayor's administration to get back on a more positive and aggressive track after months of being sidetracked by bitter infighting with the City Council. Bartlett believes the changes the KPMG report ushers in could serve as the hallmark of his time in office, which has been unexpectedly turbulent in its first year.
"The proof will be several months from now, if not several years from now," he said. "When you look at what other cities have accomplished by undergoing a similar process, it's incredible. We have that kind of opportunity now if we can take advantage of it."
Simonson echoed that sentiment.
"If you look at ONEOK Field as the legacy for the last (mayoral) administration, this report will be the legacy for this administration," he said. "With this in hand, the mayor and City Council can develop a long-range strategy for delivering city services in the future. It will be a big change, but cities that have the ability to change are winners, and those that fail to change suffer and lose."
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