Ninety million dollars ($90,000,000) excess/overtime pay, rising property taxes, management issues that have led our $400,000-a-year city manager to resign (after he gets his Christmas bonus). How massive are the problems and can taxpayers save ourselves?
There are, in fact, 3 things we can do ourselves that will have a major impact on the quality of our city management and future?
There is already plenty of tax money to run this town--perhaps to run a town 30% larger than Dallas. So what's the problem?
Like a bad mood emoticon on a bad dating website: "it's complicated."
Dallas' problems, simply put, stem from mismanagement at many levels. Dallas' administration has grown up in the “culture of Dallas" and not all of that culture is positive.
There is an over-reliance on legacy mid-level management that receives very little oversight and too much "let's bury this before it turns into a scandal" as opposed to managers asking: "how can we improve this?"
Compounding this is a city council that many times focuses on fringe issues versus the common things that affect taxpayers.
The council has seen its share of elected representatives who are nice people, but can't add. It has also seen its share of "experts" (jokingly known as "former drips under pressure”) who inject themselves into situations they know nothing about--but meddle anyway. If you're not saying: "but isn't that what you're doing right now" I'll be extremely disappointed!
At the risk of sounding too much like an MBA: It all adds up to a management infrastructure that is doomed to be (1) expensive and (2) wasteful.
So what do we (taxpayers) do about it?
That is really a complicated question and (at the risk of sounding like an MBA again) let’s dole out a ridiculously exasperating answer: “it depends!”
Getting What You Incentivize
Let's agree on one universal truth: "you get what you incentivize".
For example, if we started a business selling $100,000 luxury SUVs and offered a $99,000 rebate as an incentive, would we sell a bunch of cars?
Obviously! Who wouldn’t buy a $100,000 luxury SUV for $1,000?
We also wouldn't be in business very long, but it proves the statement: "you get what you incentivize" doesn't it!
It all depends on what is reasonable to incentivize and how you can do it most effectively.
Let’s pose another question: "what are some things that are important to all of us?”
When we call 9-1-1 (assuming we don't get Carlos Sierra--our $127,000-a-year call taker), how long does it take us to get a police officer dispatched to our house (assuming we don’t get Officer Brian Verdine--our $204,000-a-year police officer)?
45 minutes? 2 hours? 5 hours? 10 hours? Does anyone show up at all?
What do we want the answer be? 5 minutes? 10 minutes?
Can we make that happen?
Hold that thought.
Here’s another universal truth: "you can never ever go wrong incentivizing good customer service”. Period.
There are no exceptions!
Good customer service translates into jobs well done.
All of us know this to be true.
So if we put these two universal truths together ("you get what you incentivize" and "you can never ever go wrong incentivizing good customer service”) we get a formula for success and a culture change in the City of Dallas.
So let's go back and revisit the question: “is there anything Dallas citizens can do to solve some of Dallas’ problems ourselves?”
The answer is in Texas law as it applies to home rule cities (“Initiative, Referendum and Recall”).
Dallas citizens can craft and vote on a City Charter referendum allowing taxpayers to direct policy on matters affecting the quality of life, and to lay down a structure for their elected/employed officials to follow.
Here’s what we should and must do (but we must do it openly for everyone to see).
A Citizen-Driven Employee Evaluation System
The purpose: to incentivize good customer service.
Simply put: after every citizen contact, citizens must have the opportunity to answer a simple survey:
"I want to receive service again from this employee again"
It's the only question you need to ask.
For those employees who don't have regular contact with citizens, but still affect us in the background, let their peers and subordinates answer the assessment: "I want to work with or for this employee".
If you think about it, those assessments and ratings are all that matter. It's all we need to measure.
At the end of the year, the feedback is tallied and simple “descriptive statistics” are produced. Reward those employees at the top with extra weeks of vacation and other incentives. Progressively discipline and ultimately fire those at the bottom end who do not meet our needs.
While there are details to be worked out, if these evaluations are used as the primary tool for promotion and retention (hiring and firing), we will get good customer service on things that matter to us.
Response times will improve. Communication will improve. Discipline will improve.
Citizen treatment will improve.
Do we expect our encounters with city employees to be courteous and fair?
Dallas employees will focus on what’s important to the citizens they serve.
Again: “you get what you incentivize” and “you can never ever go wrong incentivizing good customer service.” Period.
Gradually Drop Property Tax Rates
The purpose: to preserve home values and keep rent prices low for those who rent.
Many successful surrounding cities have significantly lower property tax rates than Dallas. Plano, for instance, has a tax rate of 48 cents per $100. McKinney is 58.3 cents. Addison is 58 cents and Allen is 53 cents. Highland Park is 22 cents.
Dallas is 80 cents and will likely rise in the next couple of years unless we do something to stop it.
By gradually dropping the tax rate 4% to 5% a year to something reasonable like 60 cents (and requiring a referendum to increase it) we do several things:
We incentivize Dallas to be more responsible with the money it has.
We remove the “revenue” issue from the City Council agenda freeing the council to focus its time on (1) how to improve property values and (2) how to streamline the city’s budget and proactively deal with problems in city management that cost taxpayers millions.
Right now the City Council has the option of simply raising taxes to offset waste and mismanagement.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our council had to solve problems instead of punishing citizens for mistakes beyond our control?
Again, you get what you incentivize.
There’s plenty of money already in Dallas. It just needs to be used more effectively.
Restrict Employee Overtime To No More Than 5% Of An Employee’s Base Pay
The Purpose: to encourage the city to hire the employees it needs at a fraction of the dollars it spends on overtime.
If the city is short-staffed enough that it pays over $200,000 to police officers for writing speeding tickets, it has the money to hire more officers!
Excessive overtime proves that (1) some departments are badly short-staffed and (2) the departments are not managing employee pay.
This bad situation in Dallas has existed for decades and it’s time we ended it.
So there we have it: 3 things we, as citizens, can do to incentivize real, positive change for us in Dallas.
We can have a beautiful city with a courteous, effective, responsive staff. We just need to be the great bosses the State Constitution says we can be!
So let's work to craft something great for us.
Let’s work on it out in the open so everyone can follow the process.
Let’s put it together in the form of a charter amendment and all talk about what to do next!