Ed Miklus: Steamboat’s system of governance not working
August 24, 2012
Steamboat Springs — The former mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, used to travel the five boroughs and ask citizens: "How am I doing?" Perhaps our current Steamboat Springs City Council should take a page from Mayor Koch's playbook. Permit me to provide one Steamboat resident's opinion of "how they're doing."
The recent Pilot & Today editorial regarding the air service program ("Flight program woes raise tax questions") is a good starting point. The article was spot on. Council allowed the 0.25 percent sales tax question to be rushed to a vote just under the statutory deadline without any due diligence. The proponents had no plan; no consideration was given to the demand side of the equation (a reinvigorated, viable marketing plan to increase tourist desire to visit us); and now, with the 11 reduction in seats for the upcoming ski season, the supply side of the equation is in big trouble. I guess we now don't have an equation at all, but council nonetheless gave the question its imprimatur. The topper, which I'm sure most residents don't know, is that Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. charges the Local Marketing District a $50,000 management fee for the privilege of the LMD giving them taxpayer money.
Let's move on to the Accommodations Tax Committee. The accommodations tax was passed for the purpose of servicing the debt for the construction of Haymaker Golf Course. The debt will be retired in 2014. It would seem to me that you retire the debt, you retire the need, you retire the tax. But no, we have a committee that is irresponsibly determining what groups can put their hand in a taxpayer-funded grab bag. How does that juxtapose to the original voter approval of the tax? The only other possible responsible use of those funds would be for the capital maintenance needs of the city. It is common knowledge that with the downturn in the construction materials sales tax (the source of the capital fund) there won't be adequate revenue to maintain our current infrastructure. Absent retiring the tax, council should ask voters for permission to direct those funds to the capital account.
How about the Tax Policy Advisory Board, which met once a week for a year putting in close to 900 person-hours of meeting time and about an equal amount of "homework" and research to produce a comprehensive 118-page report containing 10 recommendations. Some of those recommendations have been implemented, some have not. Has council given any reason why all 10 of those recommendations should not be implemented in their entirety? No. One of the discoveries of the committee (and recommendation No. 10) was the fact that council has no metrics or procedure for evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness in administering the $25 million of taxpayer funds that the city spends every year. Any data they have is "siloed" to the city itself with no reference to anything in the "outside world" (other towns/cities with similar demographics); they simply have no reference points as to whether they are doing well. Is that responsible stewardship of the public purse?
The city employee salary scenario that recently transpired shows a serious naiveté regarding the management of a public entity. Anyone who has been responsible for operating a public entity will tell you that the last thing you would do is implement an unplanned employee carte blanche salary increase in the middle of a budget year. In the public sector, salary guides are either negotiated or are an integral part of the budget planning process. To shoot from the hip in the middle of a budget year because of certain employee requests/pressures is the height of civic management irresponsibility.
The Jon Roberts dustup seems to be another "do we have any metrics?" scenario. Council should have an objective evaluative instrument based on mutually developed goals and objectives to judge, on an annual basis, the performance of its manager. Reading recent articles in the Steamboat Today, one gets the clear impression that there is no organized evaluative format for Roberts' job performance. Further, it seems obvious that certain council members are pursuing a petty vendetta against Roberts because they didn't get their way. To criticize Roberts for using the term "Obamacare," which is a commonly accepted political term, is absurd. How about council holding him to the highly quantifiable standard that he doesn't participate in the community enough, or that he can only take in-town vacations. What nonsense.
Certainly Roberts should be held accountable for his performance. He is well paid and "runs" the entire city, but the accountability should be conducted in a professional manner and not by the whimsy of a council that may have its nose out of joint over a particular issue. How could any manager be expected to make hard decisions and be effective under those conditions?
Finally, several months ago the city spent $50,000 on a report concerning the operation of our fire/EMS operations. The report produced a number of recommendations for a more efficient and effective operation of that municipal service. Does anybody know what happened to that report and its recommendations? Is that $50,000 just plain wasted?
Given all the above leads me to think that the diffused accountability council/manager form of government isn't working. Perhaps it's time to convene a citizens charter study committee to determine if it's appropriate to have a plebiscite to change the city of Steamboat Springs charter to a strong mayoral form of government. At least then we'll know who to hold responsible.