Honing Alexandria Government Operations

Honing Alexandria Government Operations

At a budget work session last week, the City Council discussed the budget focus area of “Accountable, Effective & Well-Managed Government.”

At a budget work session last week, the City Council discussed the budget focus area of “Accountable, Effective & Well-Managed Government.”

At a work session on Wednesday, March 14, the City Council discussed plans to streamline local government operations, especially incorporating recommendations from Ad Hoc Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force.

One of the task force’s flagship recommendations was that the city and school system together should implement a “capability delivery model.” Summarizing, City Manager Mark Jinks said this model of planning and delivering services to citizens starts by asking, “What are you trying to accomplish? And then you go figure out the best way to do it. Too often the default position in government bureaucracies is starting out with, ‘This is how we’re going to do it to solve a problem,’” often by building a facility. The model encourages analysis of alternatives to building capital projects, and structured phases of planning, allowing decision-makers more opportunities to reassess and change course before committing big money.

It’s yet to be seen how well the city and schools will collaborate in such a venture. At the previous work session, Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said of the Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School, recently converted from an office building: “We went out and bought a building; there’s two floors of the building that we still have no idea how we’re going to use. And we have municipal needs out there, too. So I don’t want to point to that as a shining example of the process working. In fact, that’s what I’m trying to not do next time. I want ‘us’ to go out and do this together, mindful of ‘our’ city-and-schools’ needs.”

The task force recommended “that leadership proactively challenge traditional practices and methods for capital project and service delivery … This includes embracing opportunities such as public private partnerships, joint use, co-location, shared municipal services, adaptive reuse.” Public private partnerships leverage public dollars with private sector or philanthropic dollars.

“This is what we need to do, particularly bringing other people’s money to the table, instead of going immediately to our CIP [10-year Capital Improvement Program] for 100 percent of all the dollars,” said Jinks.

To help realize these recommendations, the city proposes to create a new “public-private partnership facilitator” position. This person would report directly to the city manager. He or she would need to be empowered with the city manager’s delegated authority to shake things up cross-departmentally, said Wilson.

The city also plans to add two new positions to planning and zoning. They would help with overall “process improvement,” and “also things like land use policy changes that might be needed to enable co-location, … [or] to allow schools to be replaced before [the old ones are] torn down,” said Karl Moritz, planning and zoning’s director. The latter could avert the need for costly and logistically challenging school “swing space” — for example, by rezoning public open space adjacent to an existing school for a new school. This hasn’t always been easy. At an October task force meeting, the schools’ Erika Gulick said that it took years to rezone a piece of open space for a relocatable classroom at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

The new hires would also help to redesign aspects of the development process for public facilities. Currently, it’s “a very linear, sequential process,” said Moritz. A revamped process would enable certain elements to go on concurrently. The new positions would also add staff capacity to deal with a large CIP.

Jeremy McPike, the city’s general services director, spoke to the importance of considering how to deliver multiple capabilities through the same public facility. For instance, the city and schools’ vehicle fleet maintenance facilities are next to each other. The city is studying the potential for combining these services. McPike expects to receive an initial assessment in April and to deliver recommendations to council in the fall.

The work session ended on a high note, with Kendel Taylor, the city’s finance director, outlining the health of the city’s pension and benefit plans.

“Long-term pension liability funding is critical” for the city’s bond rating, she said. “How you fund your pension liability is a very strong criterion” that rating agencies consider.

The optimal funding ratio for a pension fund is 80 percent, she said. The fire and police pension and the city employees’ supplemental pension both hover within a few points of that target.

The city’s Other Post-Employment Benefits (healthcare, etc.) plan is about 40 percent funded, climbing steadily over the past 3 years. The national average for OPEB funding is 7 percent.

“This is kind of a report card for you guys [council], that you have funded your pensions responsibly,” said Taylor.