PAWTUCKET — It's been about three weeks now since Mayor Donald Grebien moved into the spacious, second-floor office that goes with his new position, and besides rearranging the office furniture to be more computer-friendly, one of the things he says he has learned by trial and error is to “try and pace myself.”
The energetic 43-year-old says he has been getting up at around 5 a.m. and answering e-mails from his home computer before heading to City Hall, where he has been putting in mostly 12- to 14-hour days. Because, as he says, “it's still a learning curve for me,” he admits to spending extra time to scrutinize and question each and every document he is asked to sign off on, sometimes to the exasperation of staffers who were expecting just a quick signature.
Is the job what he thought it was going to be? “More,” Grebien says, simply. “It's what I thought it was — plus. After 11 years on the City Council, you think you have an idea, but there is just much more to it.” He added, “It's a new challenge every day, and I'm excited about it. I'll say this — I will not be bored!”
He says he thinks he has been keeping up pretty well, even with two significant snowstorms and the related phone calls about plowing and pot hole complaints, as well as two recent home invasions and two fires that he was apprised of in his dual role as the city's Public Safety Director. He says the only thing he feels bad about is not returning all of his phone calls in a timely manner. “But I'm trying to get to them all,” he said, thumbing through a thick sheaf of written messages.
What the new mayor has been doing primarily is trying to address the significant $13 million budget shortfall that he and his administration inherited. There have been “a lot of meetings” on financial topics of all kinds, between trying to get concessions from the municipal unions to discussing the city's budget crisis with the state Department of Revenue.
One of the biggest cost-savings measures Grebien is looking into is the possibility of privatizing the city's rescue services to save money and potentially cut down on the Fire Department's overtime costs. He told the City Council this week that he has instructed the city's purchasing director to develop requests for proposals for the rescue services.
“We're going to do an apples-to-apples comparison to find what the true savings would be,” Grebien said. He added that if this privatization does take effect, no jobs would be eliminated, which would be the main concern of the firefighters' union. “And if we can take eight rescue workers and put them back into the regular Fire Department stream that would help reduce the $2 million in overtime that we currently have,” said Grebien.
Grebien said there have also been talks with Central Falls city leaders—including appointed receiver Mark Pfeiffer and Mayor Charles Moreau—about possibilities for regionalization of some municipal services between the two cash-strapped cities. In particular, discussions have centered around the consolidation of the police and fire services in both communities.
Grebien said that union contracts for public safety personnel expire in 2012 for both Pawtucket and Central Falls. “So we might have the opportunity, if the numbers warrant it, to consolidate,” he said. He added that if this occurs, Pawtucket would likely absorb most of the Central Falls positions, with others going the way of retirements and attrition. Under such a scenario, Pawtucket would then charge Central Falls for the public safety services being performed.
Grebien said that the state Department of Revenue, in particular, is interested in exploring ways to regionalize some of the other municipal services between the two cities. Other departments where services could be provided by Pawtucket personnel for Central Falls on a per-fee basis are zoning and building code enforcement, animal control, and police vehicle maintenance and repair, which Central Falls currently does through an outside vendor.
“We're looking at what we can do now and what we can do in two years,” said Grebien. He added, however, that he still believes both cities need to maintain two separate governments, and that the school districts should operate independently, at least at this point in time.
Grebien said that in addition to Central Falls, there may also be services that can be shared between Pawtucket and the surrounding communities of Lincoln, North Providence and Cumberland. “The state Department of Revenue is interested in seeing how we can make this work. There might be ways in which we could all benefit. Perhaps, we can be a model” said Grebien.
Within City Hall, Grebien has instituted a “severe expenditure freeze” and has notified all department heads that, besides the previous freeze that was in effect, all expenditures will be reviewed by accounting and purchasing staff. He has also instructed all department heads to strictly adhere to established purchasing guidelines when going out to bid on goods and services.
The mayor also noted that while it “didn't make me popular” with employees, he kept City Hall open during last week's blizzard and told workers that they needed to either report for work or use a personal day. He said this would be the policy going forward, unless the governor declares a “state of emergency.” Grebien said that by not closing City Hall, he saved money on the number of overtime hours and time-and-a-half pay owed to snow plow drivers.
Other things that are important to Grebien include trying to make City Hall more “customer-friendly” both in its physical layout and in the way that employees deal with the public. He insists that at least one of the heavy double doors leading to the Mayor's office remain propped open and is consulting with designer Morris Nathanson to find a way to remove the glass window that currently separates his secretary from visitors and other low-cost architectural changes that make the building feel more inviting. He is having the well-worn walls of his new office area painted, but other than that, he said his focus is on saving money and restoring the city's fiscal integrity.
City Hall employees have been sent a memo on “best practices for customer service” that include such directives as to trying to answer each phone call “no later than the third ring” and to respond with a courteous “Good morning/good afternoon, (XYZ) Department.” The memo stated that in the upcoming weeks and months, the administration will be undertaking “a comprehensive review and evaluation of how our customer services work and how they can be systematically improved.”
One other thing that the new mayor says has taken some getting used to: being under constant public scrutiny. Grebien noted that one day recently, he got a call from his wife saying that she was unable to pick up their two children from school at dismissal time. He said he jumped into his city vehicle, retrieved his children and drove them home, then promptly returned to City Hall.
Grebien came back to a phone message from a woman who told him that she had seen him at the school in his city vehicle and was “very disappointed” as a taxpayer that he had used it for a personal reason. “I've been working 12- to 14-hour days, but I still have to be aware of how people feel about things like this,” he said.