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Monday, May 14, 2007| One third of the city of San Diego’s aquatics staff will be laid off under Mayor Jerry Sanders’ budget proposal.

But because pool hours will remain the same, Sanders claims the planned layoffs won’t result in a service cut.

“I don’t think more people equal better service,” he tells the various community groups he has been touring since he released his 2008 budget last month.

City Hall Split Over Levels

  • The Issue: Mayor Jerry Sanders and the City Council agree they need a better way to measure services, but they disagree about how to gauge the city’s performance in the interim.
  • What It Means: The council is trying to guard against any further service reductions, and are wary that the hundreds of layoffs Sanders is proposing will result in service cuts, despite the mayor’s assurances.
  • The Bigger Picture: Experts say it can take governments up to 10 years before it can really measure the services and functions it performs.

The mayor has extended his pledge, that services will be maintained, to every corner of the municipal government in the wake of his plan to shed more than 300 workers citywide. He has steadfastly defended accusations that he’s wrong, claiming efficiencies he has squeezed through streamlining produce better or equal service with less staff.

It’s a bold pledge that adds a new layer to his existing guarantees of not raising taxes and confronting the city’s long-term expenses, such as retirement costs and neglected infrastructure. It also illustrates a change of tune for Sanders, who assumed just months ago that services would take a hit in order to keep the other two promises.

Oddly, at the same time, Sanders claims it will take at least a year for the city to begin knowing how to describe the levels of service it provides to San Diegans so that the measurements make sense in the context of a budget.

“We don’t have the system to capture that reality right now,” Sanders said.

It’s that seeming contradiction — that the immeasurable “service levels” will remain the same as last year despite the cuts — that has stirred much confusion as well as some criticism over the last month.

“This is, frankly, baffling to us,” said Penne Takade, the City Council’s deputy independent budget analyst.

A Flexible Yardstick

The definition of service levels has proven malleable during this budget season, as Sanders uses the term in different contexts to illustrate different points.

When Sanders says service levels will stay the same under his plan, he is referring to the most basic measurements of the city’s output. These include: library hours, recreation center hours, funding levels for arts and cultural programs, or the fact that residents can expect to still rely on clean drinking water, curbside trash collection, and for police officers and firefighters “to respond in the case of an emergency.”

“We’re using the same measurement of service levels we have for the last 20 years,” Sanders said.

But when Sanders acknowledges that he can’t correctly gauge service levels, he is foreshadowing his plans to revamp the way the city government budgets and accounts for its everyday functions. The method would emphasize “outcomes” over “outputs,” placing a priority on the quality of the service being carried out by the city and not just the amount.

For example, after measuring outcomes, an hour at the library would mean different things.

Reading and taking notes from a reference book for an hour after finding the item within minutes of entering the library is better than spending the entire hour scouring the shelves for the book because it was used more efficiently.

Likewise, opening the facility for an hour after school, when throngs of students fill the desks for some quiet study time, is more effective than keeping the library open an hour later on Saturday night, when there are fewer customers.

Those are the kinds of comparisons Sanders — as well as the City Council, who endorsed that methodology in January — want to ponder when allocating the tens of millions of dollars that are assigned to the Library Department each year. To the officials, gauging the quality of the myriad services city residents receive is a more sophisticated way to run a city government than to just count library hours.

To measure services correctly, experts said, the city needs to identify the goals of the services it provides.

“We have to find it within ourselves to answer, ‘what is the purpose of this government function?’” said Jeff Hart, president of the Association of Government Auditors.

Although the questions seek numbers, they are not a measurement of the number of potholes filled or miles of sewer pipe laid. Instead, they usually focus around the outcome of the activity that was performed, such as whether the pothole was deep or shallow or bothersome to a high or low volume of drivers. For the sewer pipes, the questions could focus on whether the pipe being laid was in a part of town where sewer spills or clogs occurred.

For example, instead of basing its fire protection needs on a number of firefighters, fire houses, or fire engines, the city of Seattle asks more precise indicators: the cardiac arrest survival rate, the rate for containing a fire to its room of origin, the number of injuries to on-duty firefighters, and the amount of time it took the department’s inspectors to review development plans.

Carl DeMaio president of the Performance Institute, which teaches the subject to government officials, said that it’s the best practice to measure only between three and five goals for a city department. Too many more would water down that department’s true priorities when it came to developing strategies or making funding decisions, he said.

Anna Danegger, the mayor’s program manager for service-level measurements, said the city will likely keep the number of service-level indicators small. “I’ve seen efforts to set top priorities that turn into a list of 378 top priorities,” she said. “There’s no way to make a decision about that.”

The outcome-based model has been promoted over the last two decades. Generally, experts agree that its success can be noticed right away, but that it can take up to 10 years for it to become most effective.

Sharon Erickson, city auditor in the city of Palo Alto, said her government is still learning how to best use the service levels after five years. But she said the measurement stimulates better dialogue between residents and the public officials. “The level of discussion has moved up a notch,” Erickson said.

Sanders said he expects to start including that more sophisticated information in the budget beginning next year. The city will incrementally be able to improve its measures as its computerized records are upgraded to an “enterprise resource planning” system that is expected to cost the city $41.8 million.

DeMaio said he is satisfied with the “baby steps” the city has taken to upgrade its service level gauges. “San Diego is not going to do this overnight,” he said.

What About Now?

The mayor and council have both agreed that the city should strive to measure service levels that are based on outcomes.

But in the interim, they are squabbling over the best way to assess whether the coming year’s budget will impact the level of services the city provides.

Council officials have been wary of the massive layoffs Sanders is pitching, saying they are concerned that they will result in more cutbacks to a budget they already describe as bare-boned. A majority of council members have proposed new ways to raise revenue to help keep the budget afloat, preferring unpopular fee or tax increases in place of further service cuts.

“We’d like to budget around service levels,” Council President Scott Peters said, noting that the topic has been his “primary inquiry” during the ongoing budget deliberations. “If he can make changes and provide the same service levels while saving resources, then great.”

But the mayor thinks dissenting council officials are using it as a red herring to protest his proposed job cuts.

“When there’s nothing else to tear apart in the budget, you need to look at anything you can,” Sanders said.

Council officials, especially Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin, have protested Sanders’ practice of using the very sweeping statement of maintaining service level in the context of the budget.

Tevlin asserts that the city’s departments likely have more detailed information than the very basic points Sanders makes about library hours and the continued operation of the Police Departments. She said she understands that the more refined measurements will take a while, but said that the council should be afforded any opportunity to monitor service it can.

“Without reliable measurements, the honest answer to the question [about service-level impacts] is ‘It’s impossible to know,’” Tevlin wrote in the report her office released two weeks ago.

Erickson, the auditor from Palo Alto, said the city shouldn’t be hung up on trying to get the perfect system. Instead, she said, any information that can be released, should.

“Staff already accumulates a lot of information. I’d say, let’s get it out there. Make it transparent,” Erickson said. “If we only know how many potholes we fill, then let’s get that out there.”

But the mayor has been cautious to release more detailed service level information. Some data on outcomes has been included when he presents his proposals to streamline certain city services, but it has not been included in budget documents.

Danegger said the mayor is cautious to issue existing data because she said the data cannot be trusted. Some outcome-based information was cultivated only a few years ago, but she pointed to the city’s past bookkeeping problems as an indicator that it could be flawed.

“That would be precisely the reason that we just don’t put out the data,” she said. “We don’t just want to put out a lot of information that will just mislead people.”

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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