Things We Don’t Need in City Hall

By Councilman Kenny Tompkins

This week, for the second time in two months, the Niagara Falls City Council voted NO (3 to 2) to a request to add an elevated position to the city’s Purchasing department. The department’s director, Johnny Destino, has put forth this request twice, citing the need to fill a vacancy as well the need to make the department more efficient by creating an administrative assistant role with “added responsibilities.” Mr. Destino has claimed that his department is “falling apart” without this role.
I am in full agreement that the vote against this position was the right move both times. I would like to elaborate on this as I see it as part of my responsibilities as an elected official to ask questions and watch how our tax dollars are being spent. This is especially in light of the recent assessment plans and our city’s dire financial situation.
Mr. Destino has proposed this position, which is at a higher grade than the original clerk position, as a savings of $128. However, as much of a savings as this seems on the surface, it’s not a savings at all in reality. Let’s step back and look at the full picture.
First, the position that Mr. Destino is looking to fill at this higher level is a clerk’s position that has been vacant for 120 days. During this time, Mr. Destino has had ample opportunity to fill this role with one of the three top scoring civil service candidates. If the department where in such desperate need of support, why has this role remained vacant?
Second, there is another, higher position from which the person currently in that role is retiring at the end of this year. Mr. Destino has stated that he plans to fill that position as well. However, by his own admission, the person currently in that role has been off for 50 of the last 100 days. In essence, this has become a part time role.
What Mr. Destino is proposing is now to have two higher level, full time roles. Again, he is citing this as a savings. But let’s look at the realities. The clerk position he is filling was a salary that reflects 15 years of raises to reach that level. A new person hired as a clerk would make considerably less. Therefore, elevating that role and starting a new person at nearly the same salary as someone who worked in the department for 15 years is not a true savings. The new role will be starting entry level at an advanced rate, i.e. subject overtime to higher raises and higher pension.
In other words, there is no savings, immediate or future.
While Mr. Destino promotes these two high level positions (as opposed to a clerk position and a higher level staffer) as a benefit to the city, he has not yet provided any specifics that could justify this reorganization. For example:
• What truly are the Purchasing department’s needs and how are they being met or not being met under the current department organization?
• What are the measurable expectations and responsibilities for the current staff compared to those under the new organization?
• How will this reorganization add to the department’s efficiencies and save money in the city hall budget over time?
• What is the average productivity of the Purchasing department’s staff currently (i.e. how much are they accomplishing on a given day compared to the actual department needs)?
• To what extent is the current team been overextended (i.e. have they assumed a greater workload than they can realistically handle in an eight-hour day)?
• Is the department operating at peak efficiency or are there opportunities to streamline processes and be more efficient without adding additional staff, especially someone in a higher position?
I understand that Mr. Destino wants to ensure that the Purchasing department under his purview is operating to the best of its abilities. However, being an operations manager myself with ample purchasing experience and understanding of RFPs, I can think of a number of ways in which he could streamline this department and save the city significant money, without creating an additional high level position.
For starters, he could consider opportunities to share services and purchasing with the Niagara Falls City School District. There are a lot of redundancies with both entities in terms of purchasing needs (paper, equipment). I see these as an opportunity ripe for volume discounts as well as cost savings.
Also, and while this is not necessarily under Mr. Destino’s auspices, this city’s antiquated technology is costing us probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more a year due to inefficient operations in all departments, including purchasing. One thing I plan to exam closer is how we can take advantage of updated technologies, such as business software platforms, enterprise resource planning systems (ERPs), in order to streamline processes and improve efficiencies and accuracy. From what I have learned from several residents, bringing our information technology into the 21st century is likely to be a small investment compared to the money that is currently flying out the door.
There are solutions to making city hall a more efficient operation. Continually throwing more money at issues or adding more elevated positions without tangible outcomes does not solve the problem. This purchasing position is an example. I am not holding Mr. Destino to a higher standard than I would any other director with such a request. It is the job of every member of council to ask these questions and demand accountability from department heads. With our fiscal situation, we need to work smarter, not spend more.
The residents of this city should not accept anything less for their government.

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