It was raining Saturday morning, so my family wasn’t overly irked at me for heading off for a five-hour council goals workshop. Well, maybe they were a little irritated, but that was mostly the rain’s fault.
Last year I suggested to the council that we hadn’t spent a lot of time over the years giving staff clear direction. They agreed and told the mayor to set up a short-term council goals workshop where we could work out the steps needed to reach the long-term goals in the community master plan. Seven senior staff members also were there.
The results will be announced in a month or two, but I’d like to give you my first impression now while it’s fresh in my mind.
Each of us presented three goals we thought the city should shoot for and I swear we didn’t compare notes beforehand. We almost unanimously agreed that there should be regional collaboration between city, county and school governments to save money through elimination of duplication and cost sharing. That started a few years ago with the Joint Procurement Initiative committee that the city/school district formed, but was amplified Saturday with the suggestion to add the regional importance of the airport, as well as city services and infrastructure that benefits county-wide interests.
My first goal was to add to our energy efficiency effort by decreasing the city’s on-grid electrical dependency by 5% per year for the next 10 years. This could slash Keene’s electric budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and help meet our master plan sustainability goals. A small change in our permit process could save residential projects 3-5% in overall costs.
Many goals centered around economic development. There is a widely-held view among councilors that we need to introduce education and job skills to the existing workforce and not just rely on importing skilled workers from outside. To do this we should identify the needs of new and existing businesses that would provide new, better-paying jobs. A double stumbling block was identified – low wages and high housing costs – that stands in the way of economic development. Why do local employers pay less than the statewide average, and local landlords charge more?
Councilors agreed that another major impediment to economic growth is our tax base, and that we need to do things to expand it. Today, Keene is host to more than $600 million dollars worth of non-taxable property – local, state, and national buildings, non-profit organizations, churches and the like – that increases the burden of residential, commercial and industrial owners. And, our industrial properties have never been less productive. This is common with towns that serve as the economic center of a region, but our situation is exacerbated by the fact that we are more remote than many county seats.
Another area was in reorganization of the way the city does business.
There was substantial discussion about changing to what is known as priority-based budgeting. Priority-based budgeting is a management accounting technique that seeks to improve profitability by requiring managers to reassess their activities and determine priorities. It aims to reduce costs and channel resources into high-priority areas.
This melds well with my second and third recommendations to review 10% of our city ordinances and employment positions for value and pertinence for the next ten years, and to re-prioritize spending on road/bridge/sidewalk spending and find that funding by paring down department responsibilities in police and fire department spending.
The report from the Mayor’s office will be much more complete.
By the way, we were not paid for participating in this workshop.