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Lending a hand in Evansville

If you've time to spare for a worthy cause, have you thought of lending a hand at City Hall? Many would-be volunteers probably don't think of local government as "needy" in the same sense as an arts or social-service agency. And they may reason that they are already giving through the teeth to city government as taxpayers.

But as mayors and city managers in a growing number of financially troubled cities are forced to pare expenses, they are looking with fresh hope to local volunteers for help in cushioning the blow of the cutbacks.

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Consider the situation here in Evansville, one of 20 cities recently honored at the annual meeting of the US Conference of Mayors for its recruitment and use of local volunteers.

Mayor Michael Vandeveer sounded the clarion for help a year and a half ago when he first took office. Within a year, by the city's calculations, Evansville residents had responded by giving their local government a total of 89,000 hours of time, saving taxpayers $290,000.

The mayor says the city now needs volunteer help more than ever. Evansville's city staff of 900 is being trimmed by more than 100 jobs.

"We mayors are no longer talking about cuts; we're making them. And the hard decisions could well cost some of us our jobs," says Mayor Vandeveer. "It's a little like reentering the atmosphere from space without a heat shield. If we make it, fine. If not, we've pioneered for those who come after us."

While the mayor stresses that he is not "replacing" laid- off workers with volunteers, he says he thinks in some cases there are ways to fill the void in lost services with donated help.

"I think you're going to see a lot more creative use of volunteers by city governments in the years ahead," he predicts. "We talk a lot these days about the importance of building public-private partnerships. Well, this is one example. one of the easiest things I have to do is pick up the phone and ask for help. People will respond."

One way in which Evansville recently reached out to volunteers for help is through its "Adopt a Spot" program. Reasoning that available dollars could no longer be stretched to cover all the city's 63 park areas, the city, in effect, put them up for adoption to anyone who would tend them. The half- dozen takers so far include two Boy Scout troops, a businessman who took on a grassy median strip and paid for its landscaping, and a unionized zoo employee who took on a small garden at the zoo, using his own wages to buy petunias and geraniums for it.

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The Parks Department in Evansville relies entirely on volunteers to staff its nature center and to guide visitors along the trails, as well as to do much of the nonunion work -- from weeding gardens to selling animal food at the zoo.

Using volunteers in ways that do not intrude on or antagonize unionized employees (Evansville has four city unions) can be a delicate matter, city officials stress.

"Union members naturally want to protect their jobs, and I think that element of conflict will increase as cities are forced to make more staff reductions," says Vandeveer.

"The unions have been very understanding of our problems as long as we're not laying off [union] members, but we've had to walk a very tight wire," says Carol McClintock, Parks Department director. "If we want to use volunteers to do bargaining-unit work, like planting trees, it has to be agreed to by the union involved."

The way Evansville approached the problem under the current mayor's administration was to take an early, methodical look at each department to see where, how well, and how many volunteers could be used. Then, working with the Retired Senior Volunteer Program and the local Voluntary Action Center, the city invited citizens to help and gave them specific assignments.

One of Evansville's chief beneficiaries has been its program offering discounts on transportation to elderly and handicapped citizens. Six regular volunteers keep busy in the rather tedious chore (required as a condition of the federal grant supporting the program) of counting the tickets used and putting them back in numerical order. Ada Davis and her sister, Jesse Lantaff, both retired, say they like the volunteer job just fine because of the teasing, good fun, and feeling of usefulness that goes with it.

Kathy Muller, director of the transportation program, points out that the transportation service is keeping many users from having to be placed in nursing homes. She adds that providing this service absolutely requires volunteers.

"The help they gave us last year would have cost us at least $8,000 in staff money that we didn't have," she says. The volunteers "are as dedicated as any people I know, and their help has kept our program solvent."

One of the more far-reaching volunteer contributions to city government here has been made by a retired industrial engineer, John H. Gooch. He told the mayor he might be able to suggest ways to make the government more efficient. Mr. Gooch was assigned to the Parks Department, where he carefully surveyed job descriptions and noted the desire of workers to scrap some duties and add others. The result, according to Mrs. McClintock, was a reassignment of duties that has improved both morale and output and could well be duplicated in other departments. The Parks Department also is experimenting with job sharing and flexible time schedules for workers as further streamlining measures.

As most experts see it, city governments will likely use more and more volunteers -- as long as they properly identify the jobs best suited for nonpaid helpers and work closely with city unions. As Vandeveer says: "We're never going to have volunteer mechanics fixing police cars, but there are lots of other possibilities."

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