A Public Pulse letter in the G.R. Press on Friday caught my eye. Nancy Ayres, general manager of Clipper Belt Lacer and a member of The Right Place committee urged the denizens of River City to applaud the Grand Rapids City Commission for spending fifty grand on a consultant to instruct the bureaucrats of the city government in the ways of “lean management”. (This is the same report that gained notoriety in the dispute over closing the restrooms at Aberdeen Park.) Ms. Ayres reminds us that the principles of lean management have served business well. So they have to the extent that lean management is nothing but the umpteenth repackaging by consultants of the old wisdom of waste not, want not – or in a word, efficiency.
Exactly why the City Commission needs to spend $50,000 in taxpayers’ money to be told that if the city government uses its resources more efficiently, it will need fewer resources to do the same job is beyond me. Perhaps the consultant will advise the City Commission on specific changes to make the city government more efficient, although I would think that city employees would know better than an outside consultant as to how they could be more efficient in carrying out their work. But there’s the rub, isn’t it? A more efficient city employee is a more productive one. Increased productivity means fewer people can do more work. Because we don’t need any more government than we already have (and probably can do with a whole lot less), the bottom line to all of this is fewer city employees. Little wonder they aren’t going to tell anyone how we can get by with fewer them on the city’s payroll.
So maybe we do need a consultant to tell us how we can reduce the biggest expense the city government has, its payroll. Not according to Ms. Ayres. Lean management properly implemented by the city government means staffs won’t have to be cut. Really? So how does the city government use lean management to cut costs? By savings in the future, according to Ms. Ayres. Hmm. I think I begin to understand the value of this $50,000 report on lean management for the City Commission. If it works like Ms. Ayres says it should, the City Commission won’t have to rile the primary constituency for more government, city employees, with lay-offs while mollifying the taxpayers with promises of a “lean” future that will hold present costs in check. Then again, you’d think politicians wouldn’t need a consultant to instruct them in telling tall tales.
Now here’s the real deal with all of this lean management nonsense. Businessmen have a built-in incentive to operate their companies efficiently. If they don’t, they do not make money. If they don’t long enough, they go broke. Bureaucrats have no such incentive when running a government agency. They take home no reward from running their departments in the black. It’s just the opposite. Their power comes from spending. Spend more, more power. So they spend this year’s budget completely to argue they need more for next year. The deeper they run in the red, the more they show how urgent their need is for more money. The only check on this native impulse of bureaucrats are our elected officials who vote on how much to spend and how much to tax.
That works so long as the elected officials will stand up to the bureaucrats. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, our City Commissioners are notoriously supine when it comes to the city staff. They are happily led around by the nose by the staff and seldom challenge them in any serious way, especially their head honcho City Manager Kurt Kimball. That’s why this $50,000 report on lean management appeals to the commissioners. They can wave it around to show the taxpayers they’re doing something about the city’s budget crisis while giving the city staff a wink and nod to not even break a sweat over anyone losing his job. In exchange the city manager will put together a citizen budget advisory panel as a Trojan horse provide political cover for the commissioners to raise taxes as way to balance the city’s books. So, at the end of the day, the commissioners thump their chests on what a swell job they did, the city staff keeps their jobs without having to work any harder, and the taxpayers cough up more dough to hold the whole mess together until the next budget crisis.
Too cynical of a read, you think? Well, folks, two weeks ago City Commissioner Rick Tormala was emphatic that he is against new taxes to cure the city’s budget woes. Yet the very first public words to the G.R. Press from one of his picks to Kurt Kimball’s budget panel, K.C. Caliendo, were that it is a “no-brainer” that taxes will have to be raised. It’s still the same ol’ game with the same ol’ result –- the taxpayer loses.