Urban data networks -- grab bag of ideas on how to run cities for less

In Austin, Texas, the lights and air conditioning in city administration buildings have been routinely on at night as custodial crews vacuum and dust.

Then Austin officials read about how much money the city of Long Beach, Calif., was saving by shifting its custodial crew to daytime work. By following suit, Austin managed to save $200,000 during the first year of change. And, according to Assistant City Manager John German, work quality is up.

''Seeing the custodial crew at work makes city employees more confident that the area around them is really being cleaned,'' he says. ''And any spills that occur during the day are much more quickly cleaned up.''

These days, most towns and cities across the country are working hard to save every penny of the taxpayer money they can.

But knowing what methods other communities are trying and how well these experiments go is not easy.

''There are so many cities out there doing so many innovative things that it's really a job to keep abreast of them all,'' notes Richard King, assistant to the city manager in Batavia, N.Y.

''If you have to start guessing what cities of comparable demographics are doing, it can take hours, and you frequently get bounced from person to person, '' agrees Ted Leger, associate budget analyst in the city of San Diego.

To keep up to date on such projects, Batavia, San Diego, Austin, and thousands of other cities are turning to information subscription services, which have proliferated in the last year or two since the recession took hold.

These services supply everything from suggestions for streamlining management to buying cheaper or longer lasting products. Unlike Consumer Reports, the magazine that alerts consumers to best buys, the services do no testing of their own. But they draw on the results of tests by other groups and lean heavily on a commodity most community leaders value even more: user experience. With no ax to grind or gains to register by promoting one product over another, cities tend to readily share what works best for them.

The oldest such program is Management Information Services (MIS), a department of the International City Managers Association (ICMA). For the last 36 years, MIS has been supplying tips on everything from improvements in road maintenance work to employee assistance programs. Next oldest (1971) and most extensive is Public Technology Inc. (PTI), a nonprofit research organization linking 115 cities to 200 computer data base operations - providing as much as 100 million references of potential use to clients.

Newest additions are the Product Information Network (PIN), a joint ICMA-McGraw Hill Corporation effort, and the Local Government Information Network (LOGIN), designed and developed by Control Data Corporation in Minneapolis.

Generally, officials of one city are sometimes reluctant to give full credit to another city for a good idea. But most who use these services describe them as invaluable.

''No one city could ever accumulate all these resources itself,'' notes Al Leidner, the technology coordinator in the mayor's office in New York City. ''Limited budgets keep us from devoting the time and dollars that a private corporation might give to this kind of research. And it would be ridiculous for cities to replicate each other and reinvent the wheel.''

Many city leaders say the ideas they get from these newsletter, computer, and telephone services frequently act as a catalyst.

In Buchanan, Mich., for instance, the annual job of collecting leaves and dumping them in a city landfill cost taxpayers $8,000 a year. But in a PIN advisory bulletin, city officials discovered a New York community was moving its leaves along a conveyer belt and baling them.

''It got us thinking about it and started the creative juices flowing,'' recalls City Manager Claude Remmo. ''We decided to take the idea, follow the same principle, and develop a huge vacuum cleaner.''

Buchanan's leaves now are dumped on a mulch pile and, after decomposition, sold to residents for lawn food. City Manager Remmo estimates that the shift, coupled with a decision to sell cut trees for firewood rather than haul them to the city landfill, saves taxpayers some $10,000 a year.

Batavia, N.Y., had experimented five years ago with rebuilding rather than replacing a worn-out police car. When Batavia officials read in PIN bulletins about other cities extensively rebuilding city cars at substantial cost savings, they decided to pursue the idea ''more aggressively,'' according to Mr. King. A nearby correctional facility is rebuilding the city's police fleet and may revamp dump trucks and fire trucks as well. Batavia is also saving $95,000 a year by developing a self-funded liability insurance program rather than paying premiums to a commercial firm.

When Fort Collins, Colo., was eager to find a better way to set priorities for its capital spending projects, it turned to LOGIN and found that Dayton, Ohio, officials had developed a useful evaluation method.

''We plagiarized and adapted it, and it has become a valuable management tool ,'' notes Peter Dallow, Fort Collins deputy finance director.

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