Consultants test waters for WW decisions

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WALLA WALLA — Moving forward with a goal to improve services and increase citizen and employee satisfaction, city officials recently approved $27,000 in survey and strategic planning consultant fees this year.

The authorization of the two contracts takes Walla Walla’s four-year total for surveys and strategic planning consultants to $121,757.

The two recently approved contracts were an $18,800 consulting contract authorized in February and an $8,547 business survey contract authorized in March.

Under city code, department heads can authorize contracts up to $20,000; anything over that amount must be approved by City Council.

City Manager Nabiel Shawa said the survey fees have already proven their worth when it comes to roads.

“The surveys contributed to the prioritization and the improvements that citizens want,” Shawa said, adding that roughly half of Rose Street was paved in 2013 and the remaining half will be paved next year. “This was made real clear. Streets are a top priority.”

A more recent application of city-funded surveys was last month’s approval of a $7,500 Memorial Pool study that will look at reusing the existing structure.

Shawa said that last fall city officials were reluctant to again take on Memorial Pool after the failed aquatics center levy of 2012. But a survey in December showed providing a municipal pool was a major priority for citizens.

The four-year total spent on surveys comes to $43,452.

Surveys funded by the city in the past four years include:

• 2011 — Walla Walla Citizens Survey, $5,000.

• 2012 — Elway Research survey conducted jointly with the Washington State Auditor’s Office, $10,000.

• 2013 — Cobalt (Community Research) employee survey, $6,420.

• 2013 — Cobalt Citizen’s Satisfaction Survey, $13,485.

• 2014 — Cobalt business survey authorized in March, $8,547.

Over the same four-years, the city also approved five contracts with strategic planning consultants that totaled $78,305.

Strategic planning consultants hired since 2011 include:

• 2011 — Baldrige Performance Excellence Program-affiliated consultant Paul Steel, $30,000 approved by City Council for improving leadership, strategic planning, customer focus, measurement analysis, workforce focus, operations focus and results.

• 2012 — Susan Newton of Development Strategies Plus, $16,000 for Walla Walla Library strategic plan and survey of library patrons.

• 2012 — Susan Newton, $2,500 for development of city values and mission statement.

• 2013 — John Van Gorkam of VG Strategies LLC, $11,005 for strategic planning work.

• 2014 — John Van Gorkam, authorized in February to perform up to $18,800 for strategic planning work.

While the direct outcome of working with consultants is not immediately apparent to the public, Shawa said there are a number of benefits the city has already realized because of improvements to strategic planning, especially a recent city bond rating increase from Standard & Poor’s.

Shawa said Standard & Poor’s recently announced Walla Walla has been upgraded from an A-plus investment rating to Double-A-plus. The upgrade can have the effect of lowering interest rates the city pays on bonds.

“We are really tickled with the Double-A, but we want Triple-A. We are not there yet. We are not perfect,” Shawa said.

Strategic planning has also helped the city to increase its ending fund balance to a recommend two-month reserve or just over 16 percent.

Shawa said the city is now close to a 15 percent ending fund balance, which he attributed as a key factor in improving the Standard & Poor’s rating.

Communication has also been an area where citizens have benefited from strategic planning.

Shawa said one of the more successful programs to come out of the planning process was the development of the city’s new website, especially the implementation of the citizens’ interaction website called Open City Hall.

The website was recently used to help garner public input to determine that a half-mile stretch of Alder Street between Fifth Avenue and Spokane Street should be converted to two lanes and angled parking.

“We are now beginning to think more critically and pull our heads up and look around at benchmarks and see what other organizations are doing,” Shawa said.

Not every program developed through strategic planning has been embraced by the public, especially the “Go Walla Walla” signage campaign that drew criticism for the plethora of signs around town.

“We went beyond the requirement with the yard signs. And in retrospect it was too many and I agree with the citizens,” Shawa said.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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