Searching the couch cushions for loose change

That’s basically what this is.


To say the city of Houston is working to cut a looming $120 million budget deficit one color copy at a time would not be accurate. It’s more like millions of color copies.

Cellphones no one is using, old cars no one is driving, a 50-step process for approving fire alarm permits no one can explain – these are the targets and triumphs of a small team of efficiency experts tasked with burrowing into mounds of data and analyzing city operations to find savings.

While city leaders are looking at some painful ways to close next year’s massive deficit – pension reform, layoffs, cuts in service – the six members of the Lean Six Sigma squad have generated $25 million in savings and better processes in three years, showing there are easier ways to cut.

Next on the list? Perhaps an email to the sixth floor of the Houston Fire Department headquarters at 600 Jefferson. The shared printer there spit out 32,519 color pages in September, the most of any of the city’s networked printers. About 81 percent of the machines’ pages printed in color, nine times the citywide average.

It may sound like small ball, but given the size of city operations – 55 million pages are printed each year – the potential savings can add up quickly.

Finance director Kelly Dowe, who formed the Lean Six Sigma team in May 2011, said the group – named for decades-old problem-solving methods that began in manufacturing – has a broad focus, targeting everything from shortening the time it takes to hire city workers to helping pollution and restaurant inspectors plan better daily routes.

I don’t want to denigrate or belittle this in any way. It’s a valiant and necessary effort, it will achieve real savings, and it will make government work better. These are all very good things. What I do want to do is disabuse anyone of the notion that there’s more of this that can be done to close the rest of the budget gap. In the best case scenario, Dowe’s efforts might shave five percent or so off that projected $120 million deficit. That’s real money, but it’s nowhere close to a solution. The rest of the way there is a lot harder, with the choices a lot less pleasant.

The other point that needs to be made is that we need this level of scrutiny on the whole budget, including the public safety budget. As far as I can tell, that part of the budget has been walled off and the only thing one can do with it is propose to spend more. That’s not something I will accept, certainly not until my questions about HPD’s operations are answered. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I’m willing to accept the possibility that we really do need to spend more on public safety to get what we want out of it. (Body cameras, for example, I’d absolutely support spending on.) But I want to see the numbers first. I want to know what what we’re spending our money on now is the best and most efficient use of it. Show me we’re putting the same effort into critically examining the public safety budget, and then we can talk. Along the way, we might also make some more progress on that deficit.

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One Response to Searching the couch cushions for loose change

  1. Steven Houston says:

    I doubt there will ever be the level and type of scrutiny you are seeking Charles. Each division of HFD and HPD are designed to operate like medieval fiefdoms and no matter how you set operational goals, some genius will figure a way to game the system. They know best and will resist any cuts to their division’s budget, for many it being a loss of face more than what is a higher priority.

    As mentioned before, the city is going into an extended period of financial austerity that was programmed in years ago when bond measures were scheduled and certain increasingly major issues involving maintenance are coming up. That both HFD and HPD are actively engaged in contract negotiations at this time, each underpaid compared to other major cities in the state, is another fracture point as is the demand for cameras, demand for better equipment, and now the police suggesting a major hiring program.

    In terms of your concerns about “best” spending, that’s a tough call because everyone will have a different opinion as to what that means exactly. With over 90% of the budget for public safety spent on manpower, that translates into where the employees are deployed, not how many of them there are in total. Your questions should be everyone’s questions though because most spending is related to how things have always been done or how the department head conveys his desires to subordinates, some of them having such short fuses that no one dares question anything of substance.

    For my part, I focus on employee safety when I ponder these issues. Four men on a truck is not just a “convenient way to pad pensions or make overtime” as some claim regarding FD nor is the belief that having two officers in a squad car contrary to best possible practices; to hear bean counters that haven’t suppressed a fire in decades (if ever) or been on the streets in patrol of a hostile neighborhood (again, if ever), it’s all about efficiency but to those walking the walk, it’s about going home at the end of a shift.

    Given some of the political geniuses running for mayor next year, some of you might want to add sprinkler systems to your homes and become proficient with a firearm too. That is not a scare tactic put forth by one of their unions so much as an observation based on common sense. The belief that cutting compensation for a city that already pays below market is going to save the city’s finances is interesting, perhaps the drum beating just a means of scaring off 600 to 1000 or more experienced personnel into retirement ala Mayor White to save money.

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