Bobbie Van Treese had a problem: When it rained, the run-off flooded four homes in her neighborhood, including her own.

Van Treese knew City storm sewers would stop the flooding. But finding someone at the City to listen to her concerns, much less take action to correct the problem, was another story.

Four years and many letters and phone calls to various City officials and departments later, Bobbie Van Treese has her storm sewers.

Of course, the City doesn’t always function this slowly: Van Treese says it only took two-and-a-half years to have speed bumps installed to slow down traffic racing through her neighborhood.

And she’s still battling with Code Enforcement to get some of the houses in her neighborhood cleaned-up, and she’s trying to convince the Transportation Department to re-pave neighborhood streets because the potholes are so bad.

“When you don’t get a response, it gets aggravating,” Van Treese says. “But you get in there and fight for your neighborhood.”

“Dealing with the City is like moving a big rock out of the street. You’ve just got to keep chipping away at it.”

Not anymore, says City Manager John Ware, who is implementing what he describes as a total reorganization of City departments and services to produce a simple result: Quicker, better and less complicated service to the City’s customers.

In other words, us.

By streamlining, updating, encouraging creativity and increasing communication, Ware believes he can do what his predecessors couldn’t: Turn a government bureaucracy into a lean, mean service machine.

“The focus is customer service,” Ware says. “We are trying to look at what the customers want versus the services we want to give.”

“What we needed to do was reinvent ourselves.”

Developing the Plan

Ware’s plan creates area service teams to address problems in particular neighborhoods. Similar City jobs and departments have been consolidated to simplify bureaucracy. Technology is being updated to quickly and efficiently handle service requests. And the service hours of some City departments have been extended.

Ware says he began working on his plan as soon as he became City Manager in November.

“I had my perspective of what we needed to do,” Ware says. “It just needed to be validated.”

Which the City Council, City employees and citizens did.

“It’s a fair statement to say that perception, particularly to neighborhood concerns, is that the City doesn’t respond in a timely fashion,” says Councilman Craig McDaniel.

McDaniel’s office answers 25 to 30 calls a day from citizens complaining about City services.

“Sometimes, it was taken care of, and other times, it was like the call was never made,” McDaniel says.

Ware and other City employees based much of the new plan on a 1993 citizen survey that indicated citizens want better public safety, more code enforcement and improved economic development.

“We wanted to get ourselves positioned so we could focus on those three,” Ware says.

The Neighborhood Service Teams

Ware’s plan divides the City into six sectors, with an assistant city manager appointed to oversee each sector. The sectors were based on the Police Substation patrol areas. Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm oversees the Northeast area and First Assistant City Manager Cliff Keheley is responsible for the Central service area.

Each Service Coordination Team also is comprised of representatives from various City departments. They oversee day-to-day service delivery and meet periodically to address problems that require cooperation from several City departments.

Suhm says the collaborative approach was recently done in a decaying North Dallas neighborhood. The City cleaned up the streets, did massive code enforcement, established English as a Second Language courses and provided many other services.

Suhm says the teams also can look outside the City bureaucracy for help, turning to other government entities, social service agencies and the neighborhoods. If a house has several code violations, but the owner can’t afford to fix it, the team might try to find a neighborhood church to step in and help renovate the home, Suhm says.

“Quality of life in neighborhoods is the most important issue,” Suhm says.

“We can’t solve the problems ourselves. We need the input of neighborhoods. Every neighborhood needs attention – different types of attention,” she says.

Over time, citizens shouldn’t need to call for City services, Ware says. Alert, involved team members should already know about their neighborhood problems.

“I think they (citizens) will be able to see a significant change in service delivery,” Ware says. “My dream would be that we would work ourselves out of a job, with no complaints coming in.

“Nothing prevents this from happening now. We’re just empowering people to go out and do it. It’s just a new attitude and approach.”

Keheley says the team meetings, which he plans to hold twice a month, will help make employees more acountable because they will have to answer for their services in the area at the meetings.

Plus, he says it will be easier for residents to access and get services through the team. Instead of calling a central manager in the department who probably rarely leaves the office, citizens can call the field representative who will be providing the services to them directly.

“A lot of the departments didn’t have area managers at all,” Keheley says. “They relied on central management.”

“Now they know they (City employees) have a specific geographical area. It’s theirs to fix.”

Doing it Herself

On Frances Bagley’s street, there are several vacant lots, many of which have absentee owners. During the summer, weeds grow six feet tall on some of the lots.

Every year, Bagley and her neighbors call and nag the Code Enforcement Department to do something. The department will cite the properties and hang fluorescent orange signs on trees to warn the owners that the lots are in violation.

But then, it is as if the properties are forgotten, going so long between inspections that the signs fall into the weeds.

It’s only through the constant lobby of Bagley and her neighbors that City employees will relent and mow the lots, which normally gets done once a summer.

“It becomes the neighbor’s responsibility to call and tell them what’s going on,” Bagley says.

“You have to know how to deal with them. It takes more than a phone call. I’ve written letters and sent photos. That seems to help.”

In addition to the high grass, people dump garbage on the lots and in neighborhood drainage ditches. For many months, Bagley called various City departments to get “No Dumping” signs posted.

“I don’t remember who said it, but someone finally said: ‘We just can’t figure out where to get one or who should pay for it.’”

But Bagley eventually got her sign.

“I had to buy it myself and install it myself. And it works.”

“I’m for anything they can try to make the City better. I understand this is a big City. I believe they’re doing the best they can – probably.”

Providing Better Services

Several measures to increase efficiency are being implemented, Ware says.

  • Hours for departments delivering services have been extended to 12 hours weekdays and eight hours on weekends, Ware says. Departments on this schedule include street and alley repair, code enforcement, water repair, signal repair and sanitation operations. (Residential garbage collection is not included.)

“A lot of the things that happen, happen when people are not at work,” Keheley says. “We’ll have a better opportunity to talk to citizens.”

  • By January, Ware says citizens can call one phone number to lodge complaints and request services. The number has yet to be determined. Dispatchers answering the calls will be trained about where to go for what, so that City employees, rather than neighborhood residents, find the answers, Suhm says.

This system will be similar to how Action Center operates now. The only difference is instead of leaving a message with the hopes of it being delivered to the right department, Ware says citizens will be able to talk directly to the department.

A common citizen complaint was Action Center would be called, but then no action would be taken.

Action Center dispatchers are being trained to avoid mishandling service requests, Keheley says.

“It’s an enhanced Action Center,” Keheley says. “More training, more technology, better systems.

“Most of the frustration, I sense, is number one nobody is listening to them (citizens). And number two, if somebody does listen to them they don’t see the results. We might not be able to do everything they want, but do something and do it in a timely manner.”

  • The responsibility of decision-making and problem solving is being moved down in the ranks to allow City employees to address issues without having to go through a lot of red tape and bureaucracy. “Most important to me is the attitude of the City employee,” Ware says. “We just want them to fix the problem.”
  • A computer system to log all services requests will be on line by January also, Ware says.

When a complaint comes in now, Suhm says a form is filled out by whoever takes the call and sent to the proper department.

The computer system will cut at least three days off the service delivery process and will save 6,000 courier trips a year at City Hall, Keheley says.

And it will allow City employees to see the case history of the complaint, which will help clue them in if a bigger problem needs to be addressed by the service coordination team, Suhm says.

Under the old system, Councilman Chris Luna says it took at least two to three weeks to get something done. Now, it should take 10 days to two weeks.

“It will hopefully be quicker,” Luna says. “People don’t complain about the quality, they complain about the time.”

No One Listened

What Kent Kolman wanted for his neighborhood was simple enough – road humps to slow the traffic tearing in front of his house during rush hour. But what Kolman got was months of hard work and one stop sign.

“I played by their rules,” Kolman says. “It’s a very long and frustrating process.”

Kolman walked his neighborhood and had residents sign a petition for speed bumps. He met with City officials continuously and arranged to have a traffic study done on his street. For seven months, he spent a few hours every day working on the road hump project.

When it got down to final approval, Kolman found out all his hard work was in vain. His street has a fire house on it and is on a fire truck route. Road humps can damage fire trucks, so the City gave him one stop sign at one intersection instead.

The sign helps, but doesn’t solve the problem, Kolman says.

“You’ve got to be persistent and can’t give it up,” Kolman says. “People aren’t willing to put in the time. I was.”

But not anymore.

“Once is enough,” Kolman says.

The most frustrating part to Kolman was that he worked hard for seven months and no one told him during the process that streets on fire truck routes or with fire houses can’t have road humps. No one even checked, even knew about the fire house.

“They never even came out and looked,” Kolman says. “We will probably never have speed bumps on this street.”

Leaning Down

Ware’s new plan also calls for consolidating the number of City departments from 26 to 18.

When deciding what departments to get rid of, Ware says they asked: Would we be doing this if we weren’t already doing it?

And many departments failed this test, Ware says.

For example, all dispatch services – 911, police, fire, streets, transportation, water, action center and emergency preparedness – are being put in one department.

Three engineering and design departments – Storm Water, Streets and Traffic – were consolidated into the Public Works/Transportation Department.

The most commonly used services were put into one Street, Sanitation and Code Enforcement Department. This new department includes animal control, street and alley repair and maintenance, drainage maintenance, street hazard and emergency response.

All billing services for water, parking meters and tickets, emergency medical services and courts are being consolidated into the City Controller’s office.

And the Transportation Department was eliminated, with Signs and Signals and DART/Rail Train liaison going to Public Works/Transportation.

He consolidated and eliminated several staff positions, and downgraded numerous others and is expected to save the City $1.5 million annually, Ware says.

The consolidation will help, but Keheley says citizens need to remember the City will still be a bureaucracy.

“It always has been and it always will be to a certain degree,” Keheley says. “We’re a big organization.”

Keheley has been with the City for 19 years. He says during the ’80s the City lost sight of its priority: working for the citizens of Dallas. Instead, City employees were concentrating on providing the same services on a dwindling budget, in the process the citizens got lost, he says.

But, now that the tax base has stabilized and the transition to single member districts for the City Council is over, the City is refocusing again.

“We’ve concentrated more on getting back to basics and remembering who our customers are,” Keheley says. “All the City’s neighborhoods are going to benefit.”

Seeing the Results

Even though the plan isn’t totally implemented, services should already be delivered more quickly and the City employees’ attitudes should be better, Ware says.

“Some of the changes will be transparent,” he says. “Some will be obvious.”

“The wheels have been put in motion to make the City staff more accountable to the neighborhoods,” McDaniel says. “But it’s too soon to judge.”

In the meantime, Bobbie Van Treese, Bagley, Kolman and other neighborhood residents will continue trying to obtain the City services they believe their neighborhood needs.

“We’re just trying to keep our neighbors happy,” Van Treese says. “I hope Mr. Ware gets it where I have to call only one person, or no person at all.”

She agrees it’s too soon to tell if the new system is working.

“But ask me in three more months.”

Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.