When it comes to city government, most folks are quick to criticize but slow with a compliment. File this column in the latter category.
A few weeks back, during one of our last big snowfalls, a city plow truck took out the stop sign sitting on the corner of my property. No shade on the driver; the sign was unintended collateral damage in the race to keep the schools open that day — much to the chagrin of kids across the city.
Equally chagrined was my almost-3-year-old son, who could not abide the mangled sign outside our window. The sign now sat tilted at a 45-degree angle, casually suggesting stopping in a manner that seemed to match the spirit with which many drivers already approached the intersection. (Note to drivers: Even my toddler has figured out that “red means stop.”)
My first impulse was to dial up City Hall to report the issue. Then, I remembered the GovAlert app I downloaded on my phone when the city signed up for the cloud-based GovPilot suite of government management software in December. The app was made for just such an occasion. So I figured I’d give it a whirl. In about a minute, I had opened the app, snapped a photo of my downed sign, filled out the form to report my “concern.”
I’ll confess a bit of cynicism behind my motivation for using the app. “Would this be another one of Rutland’s good ideas poorly executed?” I thought as the auto-reply email immediately landed in my inbox.
Apparently, not. Within 24 hours, a DPW crew rolled up to repair the sign.
That kind of service merited kudos, so I rang up Andrew Strniste, the city’s planning and zoning administrator, who has spearheaded the implementation of GovPilot for the city.
Strniste said he was glad to hear I had a positive experience, adding the app has helped elevate issues that can sometimes go overlooked.
“I think overall, it’s provided another way for the community to communicate with us here in City Hall,” he said. “And it kind of, in a way, keeps us honest, because we have a list of the concerns that are coming in, and it doesn’t really ever get pushed to the side or accidentally get covered up on our desks.”
Since launching in December, Strniste said over 185 concerns have been reported. He noted that number includes reports logged by city employees, like himself, who have been using the app to log errant shopping cart sightings in an effort to create a heat map for the city.
The notion of the city tracking shopping cart migration patterns set my imagination adrift. I envisioned a David Attenborough-narrated documentary — “Shopping Carts in the Mist,” they’d call it — revealing the hidden lives of these curious, misunderstood creatures. But I digress.
Beyond shopping carts, Strniste said residents mostly have been reporting concerns about sidewalk and road conditions, as well as property-related trash complaints.
He noted that while engagement has been steady, he would like to see more Rutlanders utilizing the app, and encouraged people to download it.
“I think it’s another mechanism for them to report issues that they’re having. And they don’t necessarily need to call around City Hall to get to the right department,” he said.
So far, GovAlert looks to be a successful test of City Hall’s big tech push that also included an overhaul of the city’s woefully outdated website.
Apparently, the Board of Aldermen likes what they see, too. At its April 3 meeting, the board OK’d Strniste’s request to boost city funding for GovPilot from around $21,000 to $86,580 annually. Strniste broke down costs, explaining that GovPilot’s contract with the city would be prorated for the first year, costing around $55,000. Moving forward, he said he was confident the $86,000 price tag could be covered using fees collected by his department, as well as other non-tax revenue Mayor Mike Doenges has pledged to sniff out.
Strniste said upgrading to the service’s unlimited package will make city government operations more efficient by streamlining work processes, consolidating data entry and eliminating handwritten forms. He noted it also will increase accessibility for residents will be able to pay fees electronically, as well as apply for permits and licenses outside City Hall’s regular business hours.
Alderman John McCann praised the GovPilot, saying decreasing barriers of access for residents seeking services and information is a positive development.
He added that he is also a GovAlert app user.
“The ease with which you can just report a non-emergency issue for the city to consider is awesome,” he said, adding, it “allows more people to be the eyes and ears of what issues are out there on our sidewalks, on our streets in the city.”
Having a tool to bring these kinds of issues to the city’s attention is something more residents should embrace. Just make sure you’re keeping your eyes and ears open when you’re posting — some of those sidewalks are pretty treacherous.
Jim Sabataso is the news editor for the Rutland Herald.
This article was originally published in the Rutland Herald on April 11, 2023.