How Hard Is It To Run A City

How Hard Is It To Run A City

It’s a broad question, sure, and not an easy one to answer. But it’s one that’s worth a shot for education’s sake. Because let’s face it, criticism and praise shouldn’t be pushed out there without some fist to palm pounding behind it.

We first need to take a look at exactly what the fine folks at 30 Church Street have to work with. According to the city of Rochester’s website, the municipal government is comprised of approximately 3,500 individuals working in several hundred occupations within more than 20 departments, each of which is divided into sub-bureaus. That’s a fair amount of people to keep track of, and a lot of people needed to manage those employees. Think of it like a nesting doll of responsibility, from the heads of the bureaus to the commissioners of the departments and all the way up to the mayor’s office.

“There are different levels going from top to bottom, and each handles a distinct set of roles,” said Jeremy Cooney, the mayor’s Chief of Staff. “From the top you have the mayor and the mayor’s senior staff. Then you have the deputy mayor [the mayor’s Chief Operating Officer.]”

Cooney says most department heads —minus the police and communications departments— answer directly to the deputy mayor, whose role includes meeting with each commissioner on a weekly basis. The deputy mayor then compiles these reports and brings them to the mayor, effectively consolidating the process of getting the “feel” of the city’s operations and allowing the mayor to make informed decisions in implementing policies and getting projects going.

Sounds simple enough, right? Almost simple enough to raise an eyebrow and ask Cooney, “Really, how hard is it to run a city?”

“It’s really hard, it really is,” Cooney said. “You never know what it’s like to run a city until you’re in the mayor’s seat. Mayor Richards, Duffy, Johnson, Ryan… the city has grown. It’s a government structure that’s not just a public works office anymore.”

To the uninformed, the distinctions between federal, state and municipal governments may be blurry, with the assumption that all perform the same role on different scales, or that city government is a bunch of smelly old dudes sitting in a big, oak-furnished room, passing policies dictated by the lips of their wallets and solely invested in their best interests. However, that’s not, entirely, true.

“City government is very real,” Cooney said. “When you think of federal government, you think of policy issues, big debates and the pageantry around it with choices that shake down to the states. The state level has some degree of enforcement of those policies, but their main role is budget —handling the money— from both the federal government and taxing the municipalities.”

In short, the president doesn’t dictate how your trash is taken out.

So now that we know city hall isn’t an echo chamber of filibusters and pointless arguments, at least to our knowledge, we can look at the 3,500 or so that make the Flower City tick.

From the top of the cake, we have the mayor’s office, or the people that actually make the choices that affect you, me and everyone we know. Beyond the mayor, the executive branch is comprised of the deputy mayor, the chief of staff, the assistant to the mayor, the director of special projects and her senior staff assistant; with direct reports to the mayor coming from the director of communications, the police chief and her personal secretary. These are the people that fill the mayor in on the details needed to make informed decisions that provide the best opportunities for the city of Rochester. The real awareness of the city’s issues, however, falls to the mayor.

“We’re fortunate because Mayor Warren isn’t a stranger to city government, being president of city council the last two years and having sat on it for seven years prior,” Cooney said. “She’s well aware of the city’s critical issues and is familiar with most of the staff far beyond the senior staff, all these personalities within the local government.”

This doesn’t guarantee the complete cooperation of everyone in the government all the time, and despite Warren’s unifying example, four months may not predict the next few years.

Paul Ferber, the former chair of the political science department at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a current professor, laid out an example of the typical dynamics of city government.

“The separation of powers, which is the foundation of government in American society means checks and balances,” Ferber said. “But at the same time increases complexity and possibility for disagreement, which is one factor that goes into how hard it is to run a city.”

In the case of the City of Rochester, there is a fair amount of unity in the political affiliations of it’s representatives. However, for today’s city, even if there was division, there’s reasonable doubt this could be a factor, at least in the short run. Cooney says from day one, Warren made developing positive relationships with each and every neighborhood in the city her number one priority, even taking members of her staff around the town to show them—as Cooney said—“Hey, these are the people we work for, who fund our budget and pay our salaries, and these are the people we’re held accountable to. We need to know all people and understand their issues are distinct and equally important.”

The trouble with this is that Rochester is not a small area or a small strip of a town like the ones that dot the plains and woods of upstate New York. It’s a city of more than 200,000 people living in about 30 distinct communities, all of which have their own concerns that may not be pertinent to the city itself.

“Meeting with neighborhood groups and finding out what they want is essential,” said Cooney. “South Wedge, Charlotte, El Camino, Stadium, 19th Ward… these are distincts, proud neighborhoods each with their own set of issues. For instance, Beechwood has been having issues with corner stores attracting crime. There are many good ones, but the question is how we cover the bad ones.”

The result of questions like that? A police chief with a policy of community-tailored policing, where certain communities are profiled as areas needing extra attention, something Rochester has been working on in recent months which according to a March 7 WHEC report will be formally presented to the mayor by Chief Cimmelli in May.

In a city with so many problems, there’s little if any way to gain favor without making changes across the board from day one. It’s in not just pretending to have an understanding what the people need, but listening to the voices of the people to see what’s right and best for their slice of town.

“It’s important to have a strong downtown and the mayor has been holding hands with the developers during that process, but neighborhood connections are important,” Cooney said.

While policymaking with neighborhoods in mind is admirable and necessary, we need to think about how many different departments are assigned to executing all of the small jobs and tasks that we see as menial. That are necessary for a city block to operate up to standards. Who keeps the buses showing up to the stops and prevents criminal activity from taking those shops over? Who takes the trash out of the can next to that bus stop? Who keeps the gaps in the sidewalk filled?

Rochester’s more than 20 service departments all have their unique place in the city’s landscape, and the many bureaus contained within each of those departments allows for the most basic tasks we take for granted to be completed to our expectations. One of the city’s largest employing departments —the department of environmental services— is made up of three bureaus; Architecture and Engineering, Operations and Parks and the Bureau of Water, all of which have directors that are expected to report to the commissioner regularly and to coordinate the tasks each bureau is intended to handle.

As the Warren administration looks to improving the city’s economy through reconstruction and redevelopment, it could be argued that Architecture and Engineering, responsible for the restoration and maintenance of the city’s infrastructure, is currently one of the most important bureaus today. Presently they are working on nine various projects according to the department’s website.

When major industries move out of the city, Rochester loses the tax dollars those industries would be paying and the city reaps none of the benefits of its geography. Which is why Rochester needs to be an attractive center for industry to move into, something which, even with collaboration, is not an easy thing to fix.

“Fifty years ago, there wasn’t a real competition [with the suburbs] but now, cities have to focus on economic development and revitalization of key areas,” Ferber said. “Abandoned property doesn’t generate income—and if you can get it back in private hands you’ll improve the revenue base and therefore create jobs.”

In doing so, there clearly needs to be some incentive for big earners to move their facilities —and employment bases— into urban areas.

“Stimulation of economic development is vital to a city’s development, which is why Rochester has lately been putting a lot of effort into Main Street and the East End, getting small businesses and apartment housing built and occupied, producing tax revenue,” said Ferber. “Starting in the 1950s many cities rapidly lost populations as well as tax revenue. The people who stayed tended to be poorer people who would also put more demand on the government service, something we call in the political science department a ‘service dependent population,’ and with the combination of that and a receding tax base, you put a lot of strain on the government’s budgets.”

Cooney relates redevelopment as not just an investment in the city but for bettering the quality of life enjoyed by those residing in it. In prioritizing exactly where to start, feeling out the needs and vibes of those people government works for are crucial in selecting projects.

“The municipal government is in charge of operations—trickling down to the realest level for the consumer,” Cooney said. “‘Was my street plowed? Do I like the new development on Main Street? Do I feel safe?’ In the city of Rochester, specifically, we don’t do much in the area of human services, that’s in the realm of the county, but we look at the quality of life factors, including things such as evaluating neighborhoods.”

Perspectives on these neighborhoods, such as the South Wedge, are typically derived from both the concerns of citizens and the work of the government in profiling the area. In the South Wedge’s case, as an area that has seen a great deal of change in the last two decades, those changes need to not only be adapted to benefit the most people, but to use those changes and the issues they bring with them,  as precedents for other projects.

“There are new restaurants and stores opening up, all coming from good city planning, involving looks at the zoning issues involved as well as the reuse of existing structures; such as converting warehouses into lofts and retail spaces, et cetera,” Cooney said. “Now the community is growing, which is drawing more people, and raising criminal activity. Now we have to look at police safety, getting bike officers on the street to show people safety is not perception, it’s reality.”

As basic as it sounds, the city’s governing body is what is responsible for bringing people into a city, establishing incentives that aren’t only attractive enough to bring in people who can cultivate an outstanding urban culture, but also attractive enough for businesses and corporations to say no to the suburbs and set up shop in the city itself.

One example of this is a current initiative being undertaken by the city to establish itself as a major international center of manufacturing, which Cooney says he is currently working on applying for with a team committed to seeing the process through. While Rochester is already home to a number of renowned industries, failing or not, the designation would no doubt help to foster the industries we already have and potentially attract new ones smitten. This would create jobs, bringing in an influx of educated persons working to boost the local economy, as well as offering new opportunities to people within the city. People who may need a job that would allow them to live by better means than before would then have that opportunity. This is something worth looking into considering Rochester was named the third-poorest city in the country, in a report published by the Rochester Area Community Foundation and reported by The Democrat and Chronicle in Decemeber last year.

The key to long-term improvement however, is making the people such an initiative would bring in want to stay in the city after work hours, to spend money in the city of Rochester as opposed to dropping dollars in Henrietta or Greece. Keeping the money, earned in Rochester, circulating Rochester. Creating incentive to do so means peak performance by all departments of City Hall, which seems like a fairly daunting task for any administrator, especially considering these incentives are needed to counter poverty, now as high as 31.1 percent according to the RACF’s report.

The good news about all this is that in improving what’s wrong with the city, there’s always precedent to examine other cities, an area in which Cooney is well versed. Positive relations and open collaboration with other similarly-sized cities is crucial in not only correcting issues, but in eliminating them as well.

“We are constantly looking at other cities for benchmarks,” Cooney said. “Looking to see what cities our size are doing that we can either take their idea and implement on or take and build upon. Such as how policing is done, or in this case, community policing and Lovely Warren’s proposal in going from two sections of enforcement to four quadrants.”

“We want to see how policing is being done downstate, how it’s being done in Syracuse, Buffalo and in other cities our size. We want to see the challenges they faced, the costs involved in making those changes and what the labor issues were. We try to learn from each other, and all the mayors are well connected, on the phone with each other and constantly sharing ideas.”

The idea of city government, at least in Rochester’s case, seems to have morphed into a service industry, rather than an entity we pay with our tax dollars to in return for a high quality of life. They’re not Time Warner Cable or Verizon Wireless, services we can drop whenever we’re dissatisfied. The city’s government is what makes the homes of hundreds of thousands livable, and therefore, holds with it a lot of responsibility and weight. For this reason alone, people need to be engaged in what happens in city hall. Cooney even said it himself, “People should care because their living experience depends highly on city government as a consumer in the city.”

It’s been five months since Lovely Warren took the reins of Rochester and in that time, we’ve seen not just acknowledgement of what is very wrong with the city, but also proposals on how to make those issues go away. The main problem with that is how to make it happen feasibly and efficiently, a process which, anyone who has ever attended any government function can attest to, never goes without criticism. But isn’t taking action something we demand of our politicians, action taken by somebody that is invested in their product?

“The mayor says ‘I don’t rule from 30 Church Street, I’m a person who comes to neighborhoods and I want to hear firsthand from the people that reside there,’” Cooney said. “This is something very personal to the mayor. It’s her hometown and she wants to see it succeed, and she wants to see a stronger place for families. Her first day she took her staff on a bus tour around different neighborhoods to show people  that ‘these are the people we work for, who fund our budget and pay our salaries and these are the people we’re held accountable to. We need to know all people and understand their issues are distinct and equally important.’”

Whether or not people believe it is up to them. The truth is, a city isn’t easy to run. Not by a long shot. But one thing that makes it just a little bit easier is the engagement of its citizens, the people that are actively invested in their community. The people that take part in community watches, that draft petitions, that volunteer and the people openly critical of what their government is, or isn’t, doing for them.

“This is a mayor open to new ideas, and people should take advantage of that,” Cooney said. “She’s connected and unafraid to work at 11 at night or six in the morning. She enjoys what we all enjoy, and if you feel you have a connection to her you should do so. Ideas are not falling on deaf ears.”

Ferber said the lack of understanding of civic operations definitely plays a role in civic engagement.

“You don’t need to be informed to be opinionated,” Ferber said. “A lot of people make criticisms that are somewhat accurate but don’t take the larger picture into account. There’s always some larger angles, some things that aren’t taken into account, and some people focus on a narrow part of it—and may be informed on it, but don’t see the big picture. They want government to do things and fix things, but we don’t like taxes raised to do it, and all of these things mean expenditure on the government’s part. They have to balance requests and demands with a budget that eventually comes home to roost if they don’t budget. “

That being said, we need to realize everything that an administrator is; they not only need to operate everything to a degree that we, as citizens, find satisfactory, but to lead us as well. To listen to our needs and act on them. To pass policy and pick up the trash. To cut ribbons and clean the streets. It’s not a job to be done alone, but somebody’s got to do it.

The fact somebody that knows the city well is in office helps a little bit, but would help a lot more if the local experts —the people who actually live in the neighborhoods being decided upon— would articulate their needs a bit more effectively than tweeting “you suck.”

If you need a bit more proof on how hard it is to run a city, allow me to share my experiences in urban management. As I left city hall and drove the 20 miles or so back to my house, I thought about what it actually takes to run a city, which inspired me to download a copy of that old classic PC game, SimCity. In the first half hour as I sat at my desktop pushing buttons, I managed to squander the $500,000 in my treasury at a rate of -$2,000 monthly, saw my population fall from 30,000 to 12,000, had crime skyrocket and pollution so bad, it created an acid raincloud that destroyed most the industrial quarter.

We’re all experts until we’re actually called upon to be that expert, I suppose.