Viewpoint: How one small city survived the recession
By Kevin Smith
Circa 2009. The moment of truth for the small (33,000+ residents) Central Florida bedroom community of Winter Springs. The recession was burrowing in like a mole in a lawn. Folks in and out of city government feared that the downturn might undermine Winter Springs’ ability to serve its residents. The options were few to none: raise taxes, cut services, deplete the rainy day fund, or a combination of unacceptable choices.
Winter Springs was no different from thousands of other communities around the country, and the path we chose was probably similar to what many other cities did to fight their way back. But the difference for Winter Springs, I’m convinced, was attitude, pure and simple. As corny as it may sound, it was a “can do” attitude that became the mantra of nearly everyone connected with the city, from the mayor and city commission, who showed political courage in their fearless support of the tough decisions we made, to every hard working employee who committed to increase their productivity. Here’s how it worked then and how it’s still working four years later.
First, I met with our department heads, sharing with them the steps we needed to take and asking them for their buy in. This was a critical step. We needed to clearly describe our fiscal plan to the team, very early in the process, to help them understand that this paradigm was not only necessary, but the right thing to do.
Not only did our team meet this challenge head-on, department leaders looked at the challenges as an internal “competition” to see which units could come up with the best cost-efficient ideas involving such things as effective outsourcing, automation, personnel reorganization and other initiatives that would save tax dollars without sacrificing services. And, perhaps a bit selfishly, that made my job easier.
Among other things, we:
- Cut personnel expenses, when appropriate and applicable, in each department by not replacing employees who left or retired, instead assigning their duties to others and compensating them accordingly for their increased responsibilities. For example, we reduced the number of police department captains from six to four with no loss of service. Crime rates were actually reduced.
- Enhanced our use of part-time staffing to better align our limited resources with our increasing demands, improving customer service.
- Returned to an old-fashioned, zero-based budget and stuck by it. Each department head was challenged to closely evaluate and justify, line by line, each dollar he or she needed.
- Challenged staff to come up with creative ways of providing the same level of services for less money, and it became a competition among employees in each department. In one initiative, parks and recreation instituted a successful banner advertising program at our dog park to raise funds to cover the costs of operating the park.
- Sought ways of broadening Winter Springs’ tax base by competing for new business with incentives and other inducements. By reducing operating costs, we also protected our rainy day fund so that it could be used to lure new industries to the community. This helped advance our plan to increase property tax revenues by increasing our tax base rather than increasing our tax rate. In other words, we took a private sector “volume increase approach” instead of a “price increase approach.”
During this multi-year process, we had very few resident complaints about feeling the pinch from the city’s “attitude adjustment.” In fact, the vast majority of residents welcomed and applauded this “fresh” approach. Also, it certainly didn’t hurt that the city’s millage rate actually was reduced. Nor did residents complain when in 2011 Money Magazine named Winter Springs one of the “100 Best Places to Live in America,” the only municipality in Florida to be so honored that year.
As the city manager for Winter Springs, the thing that impresses me the most about the city’s financial about-face was the enthusiastic response of each and every employee, especially the department heads, who went without raises despite all that they accomplished. Their primary reward: heartfelt “attaboys” from elected officials and the public. And that same “can do” spirit is still alive and well today, after our little ship of state was righted and back on course.
I’m sure Winter Springs is not the only community in the U.S. to have proven its mettle in tough times, but Winter Springs is the town with an attitude that I know best: a “can do” attitude, a “want to” attitude. As a wise man once said, “It’s hard when you have to do something tough; it’s easier when you want to.”
Kevin Smith is the city manager for Winter Springs, Fla.