Last spring we criticized the way the Modesto City Council had used its independent city auditor, saying we hadn't seen much bang for the buck out of the position created through a package of city charter changes voters approved in 2008.
What was missing: Meaty reforms that would improve accountability, efficiency and effectiveness in city government.
Initially the council hired someone for the task, but let him go after a year and a half after being dissatisfied with the results. Then the council hired an outside firm, Moss Adams, which spent its first months focused on privatization plans that mostly didn't work out.
Finally, a year ago, the council Audit Committee authorized Moss Adams to do a "citywide performance improvement assessment," and we were skeptical how useful that would be.
Earlier this month, Moss Adams provided the results of its assessment and we must acknowledge that it contains some substantiative suggestions. In fact, there are so many ideas that the challenge for the council and city manager will be to zero in on those with the greatest potential.
First, a caveat: We don't necessarily agree with every recommendation. The proposal to privatize city street trees making individual homeowners and businesses responsible for what are currently city-owned and -maintained trees on their property would need serious review and a lot of public input before we can endorse it. Modesto's urban forest is one of the city's prized assets and we would hate to see it survive only in the areas of town where property owners could pay to keep up the trees.
Second, some of the recommendations aren't profound but simply show the benefit of having a new set of eyes and ears on a situation. For example, the firm suggests making better use of technology in letting people pay their utility bills. And it suggests that the late fee for delinquent payments is too low, far below the cost of collections.
That said, there are some organizational changes that sound promising. City Manager Greg Nyhoff has too many people vying for his time and attention. More department heads should report to Deputy City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley. In polite terms, the auditor identifies "a lack of cohesiveness among its senior management team." That needs to be addressed by the council, the city manager and the other top executives.
The auditor argues that the city should do a better job of managing overtime with a potential savings of millions but also shouldn't be paying salaries 15 percent below market rate for local governments and still expect to get and keep the best employees.
If the community's greatest need is for more private sector jobs, then the council needs to decide whether to again have a senior level economic development manager or to work more closely with The Alliance.
The auditor's recommendations include some changes that would affect how and where employees work, such as whether administrative and analytical support people should be in a centralized department or assigned to specific departments. The latter is the current arrangement. Organizational changes such as this involve modifying workplace culture and they're not always easy.
City employees and managers like those in other government and private sector organizations have been through a rough couple of years with the bad economy. Many just want their pay restored and things to get back to normal translated as the old ways of doings things. The challenge, especially in the highly unionized public sector, is establishing a new normal that is accountable, efficient and customer oriented.
The outside auditor's study is expected to go to the full City Council in late May, timed in connection with its 2013-14 budget workshops. There are some good ideas to consider, the kind of recommendations we were hoping for from this position.
The audit report is available at www.modestogov.com.