Freenock looking for places to save

Coming into her first full year as city manager for the City of Warren, Nancy Freenock hedged overall optimism with a sense of the realities the city is facing.

“Warren really is a wonderful town,” Freenock said in preface to outlining what she hoped to see in the city’s future. “It’s a gem in northwestern Pennsylvania. It has a number of wonderful assets and I hope we can exploit that.”

Foremost in Freenock’s mind, are fiscal issues.

“You’re hearing every level of government cry lack of funding, and we’re going to be looking at places to save some money,” Freenock said. “We’re going to be looking at every department individually to see if there is anywhere we can be more efficient. I think, over the years, the city has made some very good hires.”

Freenock was quick to point out the city doesn’t know whether any cost-cutting measures will be available without cutting services and noted the primary goal is providing current services as efficiently as possible.

“We’re not trying to make a profit,” she said. “We’re here to provide the best service that we can. That’s our goal.”

Freenock said that, although city council passed a budget which did not include capital expenditures, there are some capital needs that aren’t going away.

“I think our residents appreciate having clean streets,” Freenock said, as an example. “Our street sweeper is held together pretty much by string and chewing gum at this point. That’s something that will have to be addressed.”

As for managing city resources, Freenock noted the city is looking into divesting unused properties, has changed special event rules to mitigate additional costs to the city, and will be looking at its options concerning the failed convention center project agreements and the Clark Street Parking Garage.

“What we’re hoping to do is (take) the money that was going to be used to re-align Clark Street, since the hotel and convention center looks like it is not going to happen,” Freenock said. “We still have our capital funds from the project and we’re going to see if we can shift that.”

She listed sidewalk work in other sections of town, rehabilitation work at the municipal building and resurfacing work at the Midtown Parking Lot as possible projects that could be funded with the convention center money.

“We are looking at the (traffic) light on Pennsylvania (Avenue) and Liberty (Street),” Freenock said. “I think that’s going to go back in eventually. We have the lights. We have all of the parts. It was intended to go back in.”

However, none of those things will happen overnight, she said.

“Some of these things, it may be 2014 before we get all of our ducks in a row,” Freenock cautioned.

Freenock said she hopes to begin finding ways to put money back towards capital funding.

“I don’t ever want to see us have to take out a tax anticipation note,” Freenock said. “It’s just a principle of mine.”

She did say increasing the city’s debt balance could be an option to fund improvements, if handled properly.

“For a city this size, our debt is actually relatively low,” Freenock said. “We’re going to see if refinancing makes sense, see if funding projects with a term in line with the useful life of the project would work.”

She also noted reaching out to neighboring communities and organizations can help cut costs.

“I think that sometimes, the surrounding municipalities think of the City of Warren as the big bad wolf,” Freenock said. “Really, we’re not. We’re trying to survive just like everyone else. I’d like to see more shared services. I think COG (Warren County Council of Governments) is useful for that. I think even on little things like purchasing paper together there can be an economy of scale.

“I know that council, at the last couple meetings, is saying, ‘We just have to get to 2015.’ and in 2015 we hope the unions will see the fiscal situation and be able to work with us when contract negotiations come up, as they have in the past.

“I would like to work with WCCBI (Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry) and see if there are economic development opportunities we can work together on. I’ve met Jim (Decker, WCCBI president) and that isn’t a subject that has been broached, but it is a conversation I very much want to have.”

Freenock said on some issues, she’s still working out the history before attempting to move forward.

“When you lose an employee, you lose all that institutional knowledge they carried,” Freenock said. “I’m the new kid on the block. So I still have a learning curve I have to account for.

“I’m spending some time trying to dig back and discover, ‘What were they thinking when they did that?’ and, ‘Does that make sense for us now?'”

She urges patience in trying financial times and said there are no clear and easy answers to the problems facing municipal governments.

“The cost of operating households has gone up and likewise the cost of our operations have gone up,” Freenock pointed out. “If the cost of your electricity goes up, our cost goes up as well.

“Continually raising taxes isn’t the answer. We have a continually aging population on fixed incomes and we can’t keep going back to the well. After we’ve exhausted all that we can do, we may have to cut services, which I don’t want to see.

“Some of the services, like sewer billing after Pennsylvania American Water stopped handling it, we’ve had to send elsewhere. I’m not saying the transition went perfectly, but I’m afraid there’s a feeling we’re losing a personal touch and I’d hate to lose that.

“I’m very happy to be here and I think we have a great council and great residents. I hope that we’ll have a long relationship.”