January 22, 2019

Grains of Salt (v41): The State of the City (pt. 1)

Grains of Salt
Last week, Syracuse's Mayor Ben Walsh gave his second State of the City (SOTC) address. I was not able to attend, but I've captured some of the highlights below.

After opening with a great story about a Syracuse kid who found a career path through a city-supported program, and introductions of dignitaries and invited guests, Walsh dove right in.

For starters,
... I am pleased to report that the state of our city is stronger than it was when I stood before you a year ago.
He's not blind to the problems we faced then, and now, but feels overall we understand them better, and pointed to the foundation that's been built to address them, as well as incremental progress that's been made.

He also referenced the vision for the city, and the objectives which were tagged to help realize the vision. I discussed that in a recent post quoting a couple of interviews Walsh has done. The objectives focus on fiscal sustainability, delivery of city services, economic investment and stable neighborhoods, and constituent engagement, and were chosen because
they epitomize government's responsibility to have a meaningful and positive impact on our lives. There is a direct connection between the way we execute the daily business of managing this government and they way each one of you experiences the city as a contributor to you own personal and family well-being. 
Let's look at how things went in year one.

In talking about having to understand issues before they can be fixed, he pointed to the Office of Accountability, Performance and Innovation, or API. Collecting, measuring and reporting on data is a common in the business world, and it's a process that governments can leverage to not only improve services, but to increase engagement and participation from residents because the scorecards are public.

And, he reiterated that he's a little impatient with the pace of change.
Finally, and hardest for me to accept, you can't turn a ship - or in our case a city - on a dime. As much as I want to see positive change happen immediately, true community transformation takes time...
Regarding his objectives, I'll try and focus on new information that came out in the SOTC given that he already shared some of this in his year-in-review interviews.  Starting with fiscal sustainability, he highlighted these items:
  • centralization city financial operations and focusing on improving how it handles financial transactions. A pilot program led to a 30% increase in on-time payments and a 62% reduction in purchase order errors, so the pilot and the team approach will be expanded. so this pilot and the 'Tiger Team' concept, will be expanded;
  • obtaining assistance from the state's Financial Restructuring Board; they'll be issuing some non-binding recommendations, as well as money to help implement the recommendations we choose.
The second objective involves how city services are delivered.  Here, highlights include:
  • new technology on snowplows, allowing for more efficient deployment of crews - an improvement, but more needs to be done;
  • a pilot using a new kind of asphalt that can used to fill potholes even in the dead of winter; if successful, this will be a huge satisfier for anyone traveling city roads;
  • funding to help replace our aging water infrastructure, using a 'dig once' philosophy;
  • expanding ways in which residents can pay for city services via credit card; and
  • creation of a bike-sharing program, which will kick off in April (weather permitting).
Turning to city neighborhoods, Walsh highlighted a roughly 10% reduction in crime compared to 2017, but expressed outrage with recent violence, particularly impacting kids and teens. He talked about the process that brought Kenton Buckner, our new police chief, here from Little Rock. 

Buckner will undertake a full review of the SPD, including the use of force; we'll see more uniformed cops on patrol, 'core policing functions' closer to neighborhoods, and a second class of new officers this year. Similarly, we're adding new fire department recruits, and there's a strong community outreach mission with SFD as there is with SPD. 

Walsh also addressed poverty and related issues, including housing instability and lead paint. HUD funds for lead abatement have been restored. Progress was also made on code enforcement, allowing the city work with landlords to resolve code issues much more quickly, and to drive code compliance in the first place. New initiatives we can look forward to that will also help residents include:
  • a Financial Empowerment Center, to provide free financial counseling, funded through multiple agencies and programs; nearly 75% of households struggle financially to afford basic necessities, even when they're employed. 
  • the Syracuse Build jobs program, to ensure we have local residents who are trained in the skills needed for projects both large and small. New funding has been obtained - $600K over three years - to help move the Syracuse Build program forward.
In addition, we learned that SU will become the first major private sector project partner for the Syracuse Build program, helping create opportunities for local minority and veteran workers. Also, he said that LeMoyne College will be developing a 'neighborhood master plan' to help improve connections between that institution and the city.

Walsh closed on a positive note, sounding more upbeat than ever about our future.
When I took office, there were those who thought our city was on its knees. I didn't believe that narrative, and neither did most of you. Syracuse has struggled, and we are not out of the woods yet. But we are standing tall. Syracuse, after decades of setbacks, is on the cusp of a renaissance. 
...The journey to shared prosperity will be hard, but the path will be lighted by a focus on equity - in the way we deliver services, and how we create opportunity... I stand before you... thankful for the opportunity to be your mayor. I am appreciative of the support you  have given me. And I am confident in our future. 
Syracuse's best days aren't just before us. Our city's best days are within our reach. 
In tomorrow's post, I'll focus on a new program - the Syracuse Surge - that will help explain some of Walsh's optimism.

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