Last night the Engineering budget was scrutinized. There were some good questions, I learned a thing or two, and there was much less shouting at the TV. However, I observed a fundamental error in thinking and that is the tying of salaries to permit revenues. This is one reason we got into such a mess in the first place, by trying to match up fixed costs to variable revenues. Sure, there’s a relationship but it can’t be as direct as saying we will hire as many people as will match the current revenue level, because then we have to cut ruthlessly when revenues are down–and as you can see we are quite terrible at it. There’s a better way.

What should happen is that we retain as many in-house staff as are required to cover the tasks that we only want in-house staff doing, then contract as necessary for the rest. The permanent employees can take on other duties when times are slow (and it does sound like they are doing this). Permit revenue levels, of course, would be a leading indicator of need but would more properly be tied to the contract work, to equipment purchases and to other, more variable functions.

One argument made last night that I do not buy is that the city needs in-house in order to respond quickly when development strikes. Hah! By all accounts, DeKalb has its own pace in this area, and glacial is its name, oh.

There were some remarks made about cross-training, which I support generally but, again, there’s a right way and a wrong way. It’s one thing to have your community development people helping drive snowplows in the winter when there’s not much else for them to do. It’s quite another to cross-train your legal department on liquor issues and then have them co-opt these duties at a significantly higher rate of pay. And, did I hear that IT is doing transcriptions? These are not very cost-effective divisions of labor. Legal and IT have been allowed to act like amoebas in the last few, absorbing and growing out of proportion to needs.

Which reminds me: Should the clerk’s office take back liquor license work and take on information officer duties, I would support keeping current staff levels.