Charlottesville City Council agrees to conduct a performance and efficiency review of government operations

On July 7, 2008 the

Charlottesville City Council

directed staff to commission a “Quality of Service and Efficiency Study” to receive an external assessment of City operations, fiscal management, and a performance comparison to peer cities around the country. The Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia will conduct the study between September 2008 and February 2009 at a cost not to exceed $50,000. Assistant City Manager Maurice Jones presented the study proposal to Council. “We believe it is critically important for the City to periodically engage in a review of its administrative and operational processes,” said Jones.

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Both the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the Charlottesville City Schools are currently pursuing similar external studies of the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations. Last week, Albemarle retained Dr. William Bosher of the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University; the Charlottesville School Board is working with the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget.

In addition to evaluating City departmental documentation and interviewing staff about their work, the City’s study will collect input from City Councilors, residents, and local business owners. According to the staff report prepared for City Council, the study should “include a detailed five year action plan with recommendations for improving resource management, any cost savings associated with those specific recommendations and practical deadlines for achievement of the study’s recommendations.”

Assistant City Manager Maurice Jones presents to Council

City Manager Gary O’Connell sees this study as the first phase of a two-year effort to identify and address opportunities for improvement in local government. Assistant City Manager Jones said the City budget now identifies performance and outcome benchmarks for a number of key departments. He told the Council that he sees this study as a tool to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of those departments, and do so in keeping with the goals laid out in the City Council’s 2025 Vision which calls for Charlottesville to “continually work to employ the optimal means of delivering services.”

Councilor Dave Brown supported the initiative, but expressed some skepticism about the specifics of the approach, the exact scope of what was to be studied, and the qualifications of the consultants. Brown encouraged the study to focus on the number of Charlottesville City employees to determine if there was an “organizational structure that would be leaner and more efficient,” and cautioned against a big picture alignment with the City’s vision.

“I am a little skeptical that an investigation into this that uses retired city employees from other areas would provide the kind of current thinking, [the] state-of-the-art management approach…” said Brown. “I want to have something that will help bring some fresh thinking.”

Councilors Dave Norris and Satyendra Huja expressed interest in having the Cooper Center examine the possibility of increased consolidation of services with Albemarle County. Jones argued that an in-depth look at consolidation would be another study in and of itself, pointing to the fact that the City and County spent $100,000 looking at consolidating fire department services, and then opted not to do so.

With respect to the prospect of Charlottesville being compared to other localities, Brown said it would be important to make an apples-to-apples comparison. “I do agree with the concept of comparing ourselves… to communities with similar challenges and similar aspirations,” said Brown. “If we are earnestly pursuing environmental initiatives, [then] to compare ourselves to a City that is not might be pretty misleading in regards to staffing and public works.”

After their discussion, Council reached consensus to accept the staff recommendations and undertake a broader examination of the efficiency and effectiveness of City government, with the idea that the results could identify key departments that warrant further study in the future. The Weldon Cooper Center will present its findings to Council in early 2009.

Brian Wheeler

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