Charter Commission Financial Analysis: A Regrettable Misrepresentation

The Charter Commission Financial Impact Statement: Self Imposed Ignorance

The Charter Commission’s analysis of the financial impact of the proposed charter claims it will save $403,000.00.

 What Do The Current Deputies And Commissioners Contribute To The Effective Administration Of The City?

Pretty much all of these savings are the result of eliminating the tier of management held by the five deputies and four commissioners.

Jeff Altamari, a Commission member and author of the document, asserts that the deputies and the commissioners contribute virtually nothing to the operation of the city.  This seems a rather harsh characterization to me but if you observe his defense on LookTV this is in fact his position.  He asks us to look at other cities of similar size that have city managers and  have what he describes as “flat” administrative structures. 

Like so much of what the Charter Commission does, these assertions are delivered with a disturbing confidence.  It is difficult to assess the validity of his comparisons.  We do not know what kind of administrative support exists under the department heads of these other cities.  Do these other cities’ department heads have deputies?  What are the types and quality of services delivered in these cities? Who knows?  I don’t know, maybe they are more efficient but it’s hard to  tell from the information he gives us. Since New York State only has 16 cities with a city manager form, Mr. Altamari goes to states like New Jersey to do some of his comparisons.  With respect to Mr. Altamari, I think the comparison is based on very limited data, at least as he presents it. It would seem that he might at least be more qualified in asserting how accurate and reliable these comparisons are.  This is unfortunately emblematic of the way the charter is being promoted.

What Do Those Deputies Do All Day?

I would dearly love to have the opportunity to debate Mr. Altamari.  The fundamental flaw in his financial analysis is that he, and the other members of the Charter Commission, chose not to do what to me is fundamental.  After all the people they talked to, they chose not to interview the deputies.  Now I do not know how much of what the deputies do is redundant.  It is possible that they simply are another layer of bureaucracy where the department staff is burdened with sending them reports on what they are doing and recommendations for actions and the deputies simply approve this stuff.  It must be conceded that they could be an utterly wasteful layer of bureaucracy as the Charter Commission members assert.  Humility requires me to concede this could be the case.  It may, however turn out, that what the deputies do is in fact very important.  They may handle all kinds of Federal and State reporting requirements for instance.  They may absorb day to day functions of their departments which otherwise might fall to staff whose responsibilities would not allow them to effectively absorb that work.  I don’t know and neither does Mr. Altamari.

Sometimes Mr. Altamari and his fellow charter review members assume that the City Manger will absorb all the work of the four commissioners and five deputies but other times they assume that whatever duties the deputies and the commissioners have  can be absorbed by the existing staff, namely department directors and personnel such as the police and fire chief. 

The thing is, not only didn’t they interview the deputies to find out what work they do but they never asked these other employees if they could absorb  extra work.

I know that in the case of the Finance Department, the budget for the city is done by the deputy. The work load of the Director of Finance could not possibly allow her the time to take on doing the city’s budget as well.   According to the Director of Finance, her interview with the Commission was very brief and no one ever asked her if she could take on the additional work now done by the Deputy Commissioner of Finance.

Bob Turner, the chair of the Commission, has routinely denigrated the deputies as being basically political operatives rewarded for heading up the campaigns of their respective Commissioners.  Again, this is emblematic of the way they are selling the charter.  His defense of not interviewing the deputies is that it would be unfair to ask them what they think of the commission form of government. That could be unfair but what would not be unfair would be to rigorously interview them on what they actually do with their time.    I find it absolutely stunning that this was not done.  I have yet to hear from Mr. Altamari as to why he chose not to talk to the deputies before deciding their positions were so expendable.  I do not think it is uncharitable to speculate that interviewing the deputies might have put the anticipated savings he was able to project in jeopardy.

 What Exactly Do Those Commissioners Do?

I would also draw the reader’s attention to the fact that for purposes of selling their charter the Charter Commission members emphasize that the workload of the Commissioners is enormous and is one of the disincentives to get people to run for office.  I am in complete agreement with the charter people in terms of both the workload of the city commissioners and on the fact that this can be a problem in terms of attracting people to run.  They cannot have it both ways, however, and then claim that the removal of the Commissioners will not create the need for more staff to do the work they have been doing.

Commissioner John Franck who is a CPA calculated all the hours that the deputies and the commissioners work and then compared that number with the hours of one city manager.  Not surprising the numbers made the idea of the city manager absorbing those hours ludicrous.  Now as I have stated, I do not know how many of those hours are actually essential to the city’s operation.  What I do know is that without knowing those numbers Mr. Altamari could not possibly do a proper analysis.

The Short And Happy Life Of A Deputy

Finally, I would observe that the Charter Commission has a point that when a new commissioner is elected, most of the time (not all the time) the new Commissioner hires a new deputy.  This does require the new deputy to learn a new position.  A city manager form of government could address this weakness.  How large a problem is this, though?  I would concede that unlike the charter commission I do not know.  It is curious to note, though, that in their zeal to sell the charter they state that the transition to a new government will be “seamless” and do not anticipate any similar period of adjustment for a city manager who will be walking not into a job that others have done before and could help him/her learn. This city manager will be tasked with setting up a whole new government which will include evaluating the work done by the deputies and commissioners and figuring out who will do it now and how much the new positions will cost the city. Given that these new positions will be civil service we can safely assume the salaries will be quite a bit higher than what the current deputies receive.

The charter commission also ignored the fact that deputies work long hours beyond their regular day.  They are not civil service so the rules of overtime do not apply to them.

 Is It At Least Possible That Our Great Bond Rating Is Related To The Work Of Our Deputy Commissioners

 This city has a great bond rating.  It allows us to borrow money at very low rates.  The charter commission might acknowledge that it means that as far as Wall Street is concerned, that this city is so well run that someone interested in lending money which relies on a rosy view of the future of the city, can feel relatively safe.  It is possible, that the extra tier represented by the deputies and the work of the commissioners is not a liability but actually results in a better managed institution. This is something Mr. Altamari should have considered before doing his financial analysis.

 

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