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Research Bureau proposes, City Council (quite often) disposes.

Byline: Kenneth J. Moynihan


"People, I just want to say, you know, can't we all just get along?"

If those words of

Rodney G. King were to be displayed in the Worcester City Council chamber one of these evenings, it probably wouldn't make any difference. There just isn't enough money to go around.

The point here is that in our representative government there is a city manager and there are 11 councilors who make the policy decisions, and on many matters there is no chance that they will all get along to the point of agreeing with one another. Lacking agreement, disagreement has to be managed, and much of that is out in the open. It's even more open to organized groups.

There are all kinds of groups, among them The Research Bureau. One of the interesting things about the bureau is that it publishes research-based reports that tell the city manager and the City Council what they should do. A second interesting thing related to the bureau is that after being told what they should do, the city councilors rarely do it. The city manager, especially the current manager, Michael V. O'Brien, seems to pay more attention.

The councilors' failure to provide a warm welcome to many of the reports suggests a couple of things. One is the fact that The Research Bureau cannot openly engage in electoral politics or it will lose its tax exemption. Another factor is the distance between the bureau's recommendations and the long-set ways of City Hall. That was illustrated by the reception given to "Cutting to the Core: Rethinking Municipal Services in FY08 and Beyond," published on May 24.

Roberta R. Schaefer, the founder and executive director of the bureau, often includes the word "cut" in her recommendations. "Cutting to the Core" was presented as a list of ways the manager and council could improve revenue, cut expenses and whittle down government so it can provide its "core" services (education, police and fire protection, public works.)

First on her list were city functions that are not at the "core," operations like the airport (sell it to MassPort), Union Station (sell it), the Senior Center (sell it), Hope Cemetery (sell it), Worcester Memorial Auditorium (sell it), the DCU Center (sell it) and Green Hill Golf Course (sell it). All of these are currently being subsidized by the city for a total of about $4 million a year.

With the possible exception of the auditorium, all of these have their organized defenders, and those will be more interested in saving their favorites, even if it means arguing that they're "core" services.

The bureau urges city officials to take another look at the Blackstone Gateway Visitor Center, its $2 million commitment to the $10 million cost of a new building there, and future costs of operating it. Then come the bureau's recommendations for "procedures and operations that could yield considerable savings." Bombs away.

First, adopt the state law (Chapter 32 B, Section 18) requiring retired public employees to enroll in Medicare rather than in more expensive insurance plans. This one lit up a lot of outraged retirees, but on the recommendation of the manager the council seemed about to approve it. If it does, score one for the bureau.

The next thing on the list of suggestions is to negotiate an insurance arrangement whereby the city would pay 75 percent to 80 percent of the least expensive health plan available. The city manager may like this, but councilors are probably glad they're not the ones who sit down with the police.

Did you say police? Bombs away.

The bureau found police get seven days off rather than five for a week of vacation time. The city is paying $943,000 for those extra days. The bureau recommends negotiating them away.

The list goes on, offering often sensible proposals that are not regarded by organized city workers as nice ways of all getting together. The bureau wants better managerial control over disability pensions, the assignment of civilian engineers rather than firefighters for some code inspection work, privatizing the maintenance of the 56 parks and playgrounds, changing the practice of using off-duty police officers at construction sites, privatizing city and school custodial services.

A final recommendation was to end the funding of the local access television channel and to transfer around $450,000 to "more vital municipal services."

Organized supporters showed up, and the station got along just fine.

Kenneth J. Moynihan's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jun 13, 2007
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