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County defends studies by outside experts

February 24, 1998|By STEVEN T. DENNIS

County defends studies by outside experts

The Washington County Commissioners have spent or authorized more than $500,000 for studies in the past 14 months, but county officials say outside expertise can save money in the long run.

Six studies finished in 1997 or still under way cost up to $685,000. That figure doesn't include individual engineering design projects farmed out to consultants.

County resident Leo Reisberg said "government by consultants" is ridiculous. Reisberg, of Knoxville, said taxpayers shouldn't have to pay both for county employees and consultants.

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"If you're going to farm out everything, get rid of all the county employees. Why pay twice?" he said.

County officials said some studies have saved the county money.

A $200,000 study of proposed sewage treatment plant upgrades determined that closing the Nicodemus Wastewater Treatment Plant would save the county and state more than $7 million, said Public Works Director Gary Rohrer.

"It was a great investment," he said.

A $225,000 study of the Hopewell Valley area provided county planners with information about everything from historic properties to the cost and alignments for future four-lane roads, said Planning Director Robert Arch.

That study also could result in $6 million in savings through a suggestion that regional stormwater management ponds be built instead of each business building its own pond.

Chief Engineer Terry McGee said that the county doesn't have the time or expertise to conduct a major study such as the Hopewell Valley study. McGee said it's valuable to have somebody from outside the county take a fresh, unbiased look at an area.

Human Resources Director Alan Davis said bringing in an outside expert for the $89,850 study of fire and rescue services helps take politics out of the equation.

The outside consultant can take an objective look at the situation and use expertise gathered from years of experience, Davis said.

One study was questioned by County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers last month.

That $115,000 study will look at the costs of development and make recommendations on how to pay for it. The study could be a prelude to implementation of impact fees and special taxing districts.

"You are the county planning director. What does this do that wouldn't be your job?" Bowers asked Arch.

Arch said Tischler and Associates, the company hired to do the study, has expertise that county planning officials don't have, and that the county staff doesn't have the time to do such a comprehensive study.

In the end, Bowers voted for the study.

Rohrer said that adding staff could preclude the need for some studies, but that would be more costly and less effective in the long run.

Bowers said department heads would have time to do more studies if they weren't bogged down with endless projects on which the County Commissioners can't make decisions.

As an example, Bowers cited the Robinwood bypass alignment studies that have kept county engineers busy for months.

Bowers said he wrote a letter to the editor published in The Herald-Mail on May 3, 1996, in which he predicted that closing the Nicodemus Wastewater Treatment Plant could save more than $7 million plus $244,000 a year in operating costs. Bowers questioned why it took a $200,000 study to come to the same conclusion.

Commissioner James R. Wade criticized Bowers, saying Bowers voted for the studies. "He's in re-election mode, what can I say."

Wade said he hasn't shied away from making decisions.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said the commissioners are trying to take a more proactive approach to planning.

"I think this group of commissioners has taken an approach to take an issue head on and develop a plan for it instead of reacting if something comes up."

Wade said the commissioners try to have work done in-house but that isn't always possible.

"Very few department heads have the ability to go out and do biological nutrient removal studies," he said.

One critic of the commissioners said the studies don't bother him as much as what the commissioners do with the studies after they are completed.

"It seems like they study something and then they go ahead and make stupid mistakes," said Jim W. Hardy of Boonsboro.

"My father always told me if you don't want to do anything, study it to death," he said.

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