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Benchmarking Success in San Diego, Part I

As published in the San Diego Daily Transcript

Vince Vasquez

Thursday, March 26, 2009

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Next month, Mayor Sanders will present the San Diego City Council with a proposed balanced municipal budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2010. The Mayor will be challenged to provide a pathway to financial solvency, as flattening tax revenues and increased obligations have added a projected $60 million deficit. Keeping our eye on the ball amidst special interest pressures and citizen protests will be difficult for the City Council, but utilizing a key government tool can help keep elected officials on track for taxpayer accountability and public service level improvements.

At issue are “performance measures,” which evaluate the inputs, outcomes, and efficiencies of traditional government services. From the number of volunteer hours given to our parks and recreation centers each year, to the number of branch libraries within city limits, to even the average maintenance cost of city-owned cars, performance measures provide vital transparency into how taxpayer dollars are spent by municipal departments. Minor methodological changes in how performance measures are calculated may have some impact, but with enough data, year-to-year trends can be identified and analyzed for greater public use. The following is the first part of an analysis of core public services provided by the San Diego city government, using data compiled from the Mayor’s Office and historical budget documents.

In the realm of neighborhood public safety, the City of San Diego has made considerable efforts to provide a continuous rapid response to dangerous and deadly situations. According to city budget documents, in FY 2008 the police department averaged a 6.8 minute response time for “Priority E” calls –cases where there is an imminent threat to life, and 13 minutes for Priority 1 calls, where serious crimes are suspected to be in progress. These response times are marked improvements over the last few years, and are consistent with overall numbers from this decade. However, Fire-Rescue response times have been more challenged; in FY 08 the city failed to meet the tough national standard for initial unit response time (five minutes) nearly half the time (48%), and has seen a progressive decline in fire engines and trucks that can respond within five minutes or less since FY 2004, all while the annual number of department dispatches have steadily risen. With a growing population, one could argue that a broad public dialogue on financing new fire stations and additional apparatus is needed.

That is some of the good news. Other departments seem more challenged. For instance, it appears that public works departments have undergone significant performance measure fluctuations which warrant a deeper inquiry from elected officials. Municipal street sweeping, a core function of this department, has undergone major changes over the past decade. In FY 1999, city officials estimated that more than 117,000 miles of commercial and residential streets were swept, at an average cost of $26.91 per mile swept; however, despite additional miles of street paved in the last decade, FY 2008 saw only about 82,800 miles swept at an average rate of about $70 per mile. In FY 2008, more than 50,000 potholes were filled within city limits, at a cost of $18 per pothole repaired – compared to more than 47,000 potholes filled in FY 1999 at a cost of $12.81 per pothole repaired.

In addition to aiding internal benchmarking efforts for a city, performance measures provide public officials the valuable opportunity to compare service levels across municipalities. Despite all of its financial woes, the neighboring City of Chula Vista delivered higher performing public services that San Diego. According to figures provided by the Chula Vista City Clerk’s Office, in Fiscal Year 2008 Chula Vista estimated it repaired potholes at an average cost of $5.42 per pothole filled, and swept commercial and residential streets at a rate of $13.81 a mile. Moreover, its public safety departments all achieved superior primary response times than the City of San Diego last fiscal year.

To improve the power of performance measures in the upcoming FY 2010 budget review process, the City Council should consult the Independent Budget Analyst and outside experts to identify “best practices” and the most useful performance measures for each public department, as some measures, particularly efficiency measures, have changed or disappeared from budget documents over the last decade. Adopting a program similar to the City of Austin’s online Performance Measures Database, for example, would provide a useful citizen resource that doesn’t use industry jargon or require bureaucratic knowledge of government functions. As both Councilmembers DeMaio and Frye argued, putting performance measures on-line and making them searchable is a way of further increase transparency in our local government.

It’s important to remember that without a comprehensive plan to maintain or improve service levels, draconian budget cuts and excessive layoffs of public employees deprive taxpayers of the healthy, functioning government they deserve and expect. Additionally, raising taxes and fees does nothing to address the need for implementing greater efficiencies in city departments that keep our government lean and effective. Demanding high-quality performance measures can keep the budgeting process from straying to extreme “solutions” to budget-balancing, and advance a fair compromise that protects the interests of taxpayers as well as city workers.

Next week in Part II, NUSI will examine performance measure trends in San Diego library and parks and recreation centers, which will highlight the need for new budget and management reforms.