CHAD WARBINGTON: Albany government needs to be 'businetized'

GUEST COMMENTARY: Postive changes at the Water, Gas and Light Commission should be emulated by other Albany city departments

Chad Warbington

Chad Warbington

If you have been paying attention to the news of our local government for the past year, you will agree that there are symptoms of major change that are occurring in our city. Examples of these symptoms include the number of interim managers in key leadership positions, the number of changes in elected political leaders this year and finally the number of reorganized and restructured departments within the city. All of these and more, indicate change is occurring in our city. But whether the changes are positive or negative, whether the changes come planned or unplanned, whether we are the victim or the change agent, is up to our city leaders and the ultimately the citizens who put them into office.

So, what does a citizen of Albany conclude in times like this where we all know change is occurring, we all know change desperately needs to occur for our future, and yet our hopes for positive change continue to be dashed by failed policy decisions, distracting pit bull ordinances and continued budget shortfalls? I would like to offer a glimmer of hope to Albany citizens from a business perspective and with an optimistic view of our future.

For the last year, I have served Albany on the WG&L Commission Board of Directors. I started on the Board of Directors with a basic knowledge of our local government and armed with an engineering background to understand utilities and a business knowledge of managing various operations. Very quickly, I have learned that WG&L is a valuable treasure to this city. Our forefathers who started our city’s utility business were very wise to create such a needed operation to provide utilities to our citizens as well as to have a way to provide additional revenue to the operation of our local government. Many cities across our state have utility businesses, but few with the magnitude, size and profitability of the Albany WG&L Commission. Hence, my glimmer of hope can be found in our utility business of the city, WG&L.

For the last 14 months, WG&L has experienced some major changes and transitions in the organization. We saw the City Commission remove all doubt that WG&L was a clearly a “department of the city” and should not be operated independently and without direction and accountability from our city leadership. We also saw a major change by the hiring of an interim General Manager Tom Berry, who has a wealth of knowledge and experience running municipal utilities operations. You don’t have to drive very far to Thomasville where you find a thriving city with no city taxes (yes, that is not a misprint – zero taxes levied by the city) that has had a huge imprint from many years of the successful management of Mr. Berry. They have been able to do this by sound business principals and “out of the box” thinking within their utilities and city government.

In my experience in business and managing organizations, I have to give a lot of credit to the WG&L organization for responding very well to the changes of the last 14 months. The employees have really stepped up to the plate and took the “department of the city” declaration and embraced it in unity. The organization could have easily resisted and kept the philosophy of “this is our turf” and used Pine Avenue as a wall instead of a bridge between the city and WG&L. Mr. Berry has instituted many cost-saving ideas that have drastically improved the bottom line finances of WG&L and parts of the organization have been restructured to improve efficiencies and productivity.

As we are over halfway through this fiscal year and even looking at next fiscal year’s budget, WG&L is looking at the real possibility of being able to increase reserves and increase the funds transferred to the city. $8.2 million was transferred to the city’s operating budget in Fiscal Year 2013 and we expect $8.7 million to be transferred by the end of Fiscal Year 2014. That is a $500,000 increase in annual funds provided to our city government in one year’s time from WG&L. This is only possible by the energized business vision of Mr. Berry and the entire WG&L organization.

So, here is my challenge to our city leaders. Are we going to let the improved business momentum at WG&L spill over to all departments of the city and begin to “businetize” our government? Or are we going keep the status quo and continue to “governmetize” our business?

Sound business principles like efficient organizations, profitable operations, great customer service, and high quality are non-negotiable for any successful business owner in town. Why shouldn’t these be non-negotiable for our local government? Why would we risk the long-term success of the city of Albany by making “election based” decisions and not true business decisions? Instead of letting our traditional government practices slow down and seize our business operations, why not let the business culture invade our government systems and operations? In my opinion, our new vision for our city government needs to be: Let’s “Businetize” our Government.

Chad Warbington is an Albany small business owner and a member of the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission.