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December 22, 2009 7:17 pm
“Other duties as assigned,” reads the job description for municipal workers in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
Like the rest of the US, this town of 14,000 in the north-west of the state near the Oklahoma border is grappling with the fallout from a national recession. In response to plummeting revenue, David Cameron, the city administrator, has redrawn the roles of many employees.
“Our [revenues from] sales taxes are down 11 per cent but we still need to pick up the trash,” Mr Cameron says. “I pay more money to less people and maximise their use with more tasks.”
The court clerk now does all the marketing and handles the website. Firefighters do ambulance work and workers at the water treatment plant are paid extra to stand in for truck drivers, if needed.
Mr Cameron hopes the strategy will help withstand any more shortfalls and an uncertain outlook for growth.
Across the country, the financial crisis is redefining local government as officials face the reality of having much less money to deliver services, from public safety and libraries to rubbish collection.
About two-thirds of the 2,214 cities and counties that participated in a survey, to be released shortly, believe the changes implemented to deal with the downturn represent a different way of doing business that will endure beyond the financial crisis, according to the International City/County Management Association, a group for local government officials.
“That the recession has changed the way governments operate at the local level is not surprising,” said Ron Carlee, ICMA’s director of domestic initiatives. “However, the widespread belief that coping strategies represent a new normal is a significant development, with big implications for local governance.”
In the US, local governments are responsible for many of the services that affect the everyday lives of the general public, including police, transport and schools as well as public parks and libraries.
Unlike the situation for companies, demand for public services rises as revenue falls. For example, library attendance has risen as the unemployed use the facilities to research, write and send CVs. But local officials are being forced to cut hours to save money, Mr Carlee said.
Americans will this year begin to feel the consequences as their cities and towns make deep and more permanent cuts.
“We took this rollercoaster ride down to the bottom, but no one believes that we are going to go right back up to where we were,” said Jon Johnson, a former budget official for Jefferson County in Colorado, who works with ICMA to help local governments budget. “A new level of government and spending needs to be established.”
Observers have begun to question at what point local cuts could restrain the national economic recovery. The upshot is that having less money is forcing local government to be more efficient and giving them the opportunity to re-examine antiquated programmes. In Jefferson County, Mr Johnson discovered that the county was still sponsoring a Fairgrounds, but had not had a county fair in almost 10 years.
Facing drops in sales and income tax receipts of 12-15 per cent, Patrick Urich, the manager in Peoria County, Illinois, sought advice from construction company Caterpillar, whose headquarters is across the street from the county seat.
Like Caterpillar, which cut its workforce by 20,000, the county knew it had to shrink. Advised by Caterpillar’s human resources department, the county crafted incentives for people to leave their jobs voluntarily, including financial buy-outs and offers to continue health insurance. As a result, it cut 7 per cent of the workforce – 70 people – without any forced redundancies.
Walnut Creek, California, which must close a $20m (€14m, £12.5m) deficit for the 2010 financial year, is polling citizens on what services they value most, so it can make targeted cuts. Lorie Tinfow, assistant city manager, also expects the expansion of volunteer programmes such as checking on the elderly at home.
“We are rethinking what services the city provides, what we are paying for them and what we are expecting as American taxpayers to get for that dollar,” Ms Tinfow said.
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