Some Smart Cities Come Full Cycle in Their Drive to Roll Back Budgets

updated 11/16/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

With President Reagan's budget cuts becoming a harsh fiscal reality, communities across America are scrambling to find ways to make do with less. In many places municipal belt tightening has already begun. As the following examples show, austerity comes not just in the form of layoffs and cutbacks. Downright zany measures can save more than a few bucks.

The pedaling patrol
"It's the single most innovative thing I've seen in police work," claims Albion, Mich. Police Chief Jerry Baker. "It saves money, cuts crime, improves community relations and keeps the officers fit." Baker is talking about his force of pedaling patrolmen. For more than a year Albion's finest have been wheeling around town on 10-speed bicycles. The program doesn't cost taxpayers a penny; the cops use unclaimed impounded bicycles. Vehicle maintenance costs are down; patrol hours and arrests are up. "The bike is so quiet," says officer Gary Morgan, "people don't even know we are there." That may be why Albion's crime rate was down 14 percent last year. Bicycles are, of course, limited in speed and range, so a police cruiser patrols at all times. Nor are policemen expected to cycle in inclement weather. "After all," reasons Chief Baker, "sick time costs money too." Citizen response has been highly favorable. "It's great," declares Albion College sophomore Jeff Tregenzer, "kind of like horses without all the mess."

Felled assets
In Upper Merion Township, Pa., wood recovered from the 205 acres of public land is enjoying a second life. Instead of being discarded, it is sent to local sawmills and fashioned into handsome 10-foot-tall street signs. "This is an easier, happier and cheaper way to use our own resources," says township arborist Bill Hascher (left, with assistant Eugene Toth). "I love it." What started as a "rainy-day project" has grown into a full-time occupation for Hascher's two-man department. Since last spring some 100 new street signs have sprouted in Upper Merion. "It's like getting back to basics," says one delighted citizen. "No one ever said you had to have metal street signs." The new signs are more durable and cost about half as much as the $50 to $75 metal signs. In fact, the life expectancy of Upper Merion's metal signs is dropping. "We suspect that people around here are destroying the old metal signs," says Hascher with a smile, "just to get something they think is pretty."

As the worm turns
The city of Lufkin, Texas has put 10 million new employees to work without adding a cent to its payroll. None of them collect fringe benefits, take vacations or complain about working long hours—but then, none of them will ever get high marks from the public for charm, either. They are earthworms—red wigglers, to be exact—which the city uses to sterilize sewage in its wastewater treatment plant. The idea was developed by two earthworm farmers, Ed Green and Shirley Penton. "I just played with worms for several years and learned all I could about them," says Penton. The slimy civil servants (right, with project technician Pat Morgan) ingest sludge and excrete it in a sterile form suitable for sale as fertilizer—a far cheaper process than the traditional boiling method. Only 10 percent of Lufkin's sludge is currently being fed to the worms; if the town budget can ever afford converting to an all-worm treatment system, savings could total $100,000 a year.

Daylight savings
Thanks to Proposition 13, a 1976 measure which cut back property taxes, California communities got a head start on the nation in economizing. The city of Long Beach, for instance, has saved $200,000 in electric bills in the past year simply by rescheduling janitors at City Hall to work days instead of nights. Energy saving is just one of the advantages of the new schedule. "People perform better when they work in a crowd," says Director of Public Works James Pott. "Our custodians are taking great pride in their work." Thanks to increased productivity, the cleaning staff has been cut from 104 to 70, saving the city a further $471,240 in salaries. As a favor to the eardrums of the daytime clerical workers in the fully carpeted, 14-floor building, janitors (like Freeman Mathis, here with Mayor Eunice Sato) are using old-fashioned carpet sweepers. "They have an inexhaustible source of energy," says Pott—"the elbow." One final benefit: better custodian morale. "Janitors are being seen as people now," explains Pott. "Other workers regard them as human."

Let 'em eat cake
Giving the 370 prisoners in New Jersey's Mercer County jails their daily bread was proving more and more costly. ("For some reason," explains Public Safety Director Elmer Golya, "inmates need carbohydrates—and a tremendous amount.") So severe was the problem that prisoners were being limited to two slices per meal. Since July, however, prisoners in the correction and detention centers have been rolling in dough. Literally. All the baking is now done by a crew of four inmates (who are paid 90¢ a day), and the weekly outlay for baked goods has plunged from $483 to $140. The apprentice bakers (posing with a proud pol, County Executive Bill Mathesius) are making pound cakes, biscuits, jelly doughnuts and corn bread. The program also provides on-the-job training for the prisoners. "When these people go out on the street," says Food Services Manager Federico Gonzales, "they will have something to show as a skill." Inmate response to date has been positive, in spite of the minuscule salary. "I'd rather be in the kitchen," says one prisoner, "than anyplace else in here."

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