Charlottesville City Hall

Charlottesville could improve its municipal government operations by streamlining some city departments, conducting property assessments every other year and taking other steps outlined in a $101,250 study to be presented to City Council on Tuesday.

“We believe the recommendations in this report will augment staff’s ability to perform with increased efficiency and effectiveness,” wrote Julia Novak, of the Cincinnati-based Novak Consulting Group, in a Jan. 11, 2017, letter to City Manager Maurice Jones.

Council agreed to hire the firm following the adoption of a $162 million operating budget last April. The goal was to inform the development of the budget for fiscal year 2018.

While Jones’ recommended budget will not be released until early March, councilors will meet Tuesday in CitySpace for a four-hour extended work session on the study and the budget.

“I’m reviewing this smart and thorough study’s many recommendations closely,” said Mayor Mike Signer. “I expect that they will guide many aspects of our budget and strategic planning, both this year and for years to come.”

More than 200 city employees participated in interviews or focus groups for the study. Councilors also were interviewed as were members of the development community. Two public forums were held in October to gather input from the city.

The document begins by painting a picture of a city that was able to withstand the Great Recession of the last decade due to “sound fiscal management and prudent operations.”

However, the study also states that the city faces challenges from citizens and community leaders who have high expectations.

“These increasing expectations, without resources or redesigned processes to support them, have created a stressful organizational climate that is often complicated by changing priorities,” reads a portion of the executive summary.

The study has 83 distinct recommendations that are expanded upon in the 198-page report.

One of them would designate one of the two assistant city managers to also oversee how proposed commercial and residential developments make their way through City Hall.

“The development review process in Charlottesville needs a designated owner,” reads page 68 of the study. “The owner needs to be in a position of authority in order to provide clear and consistent direction to all development review staff, regardless of their department.”

Some functions within the Department of Neighborhood Development Services, such as environmental sustainability and engineering, would be transferred to the Department of Public Works. That agency’s transit and utility divisions would be elevated to independent departments.

Internal and financial recommendations include hiring another person to work in procurement, creating a “public safety business analyst” and beginning a practice of conducting annual performance reviews for city employees.

“One of the common concerns expressed by city staff was the lack of a consistent performance appraisal process,” reads page 55 of the study. “Managers and supervisors are not held accountable to ensure that they complete reviews in a timely manner.”

The study also called for a master plan to be created for the Department of Parks and Recreation. The last needs assessment was conducted in 2006 and led to the creation of master plans for most of the city’s parks.

“While these planning efforts are commendable, each plan was formulated independently and [do] not represent a comprehensive, unified planning approach to planning both for parks and recreation activities in the department,” reads page 72 of the document.

To improve the efficiency of Charlottesville Area Transit, the study calls for the city to “resume annual transit customer surveys” and “approach the University of Virginia about increased ridership.”

Passenger surveys have not been conducted since 2013 but one will be conducted this year, according to Jones.

UVa contributed $202,508 to CAT in 2010 to support a ridership of 311,719. In 2016, the contribution had increased to $234,560, but ridership by UVa students, staff and faculty had increased to 514,902.

“The fact that funding does not proportionately increase with ridership signals that UVa may not be covering the full cost of the reciprocal ridership arrangement with the transit department,” reads an explanation on page 112.

The study also recommends restructuring the police department and moving patrol officers to a 12-hour shift schedule. Novak also suggests a needs assessment be conducted to determine if police have enough space to do their work.

The fire department should partner with the Charlottesville Area Rescue Squad on medical calls, develop a program to reduce fire alarms and “civilianize the planning function of the administration.”

Another recommendation calls for an overall work plan to be created for all city government operations.

“An annual work plan allow the governing body to respond to the changing needs of the community while not supplanting the city’s existing planning efforts,” reads page 17. “It provides a vehicle for the council to identify, collectively, those initiatives within various plans that are to be prioritized by city staff in the coming year.”

“In Charlottesville, there is the perception that every inquiry and new project discussed by the City Council should be given the highest priority, which can result in confusion and inefficiency,” reads page 26. “This confusion results in staff members having difficulty determining what should be completed first and what truly is more important.”

Another recommendation would move the city to doing property assessments every other year, rather than annually.

“While annual assessments provide more recent information on market trends and price fluctuations, the assessor’s office is currently unable to comprehensively assess all city parcels on an annual basis and lacks the quality of parcel information,” reads page 41.

Another recommendation is for the city to upgrade its budget software to something more sophisticated.

“With a disciplined implementation, a budget system has the capability to improve access to information, streamline decision-making and gain staffing efficiencies,” reads an explanation on page 19.

A previous efficiency study was conducted by UVa’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service in 2009.

The school system’s operations are not covered by this study.

Jones said it is difficult at this point to know how the efficiency study will change city government.

“While some of the recommendations are short term and could be done rather easily, many of them are long term and will need to be carefully reviewed before they are addressed in the budget,” Jones said.