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To save cash on government, study combining departments

January 13, 2003

Last week two Washington County Commissioners said they backed the idea of hiring a consultant to probe the Washington County school system in an effort to cut waste and improve efficiency.

It's the third consultant study the county's elected officials have proposed in the last six months. Such a piecemeal approach will waste money and delay progress on the measure with the most money-saving potential - the merger of local government departments.

For example, why do Hagerstown and the county governments each need their own permits department? The last county board said those two would be the easiest ones to merge, but little if anything has been done to start the process of combining them. Once something like that has been done successfully, then the next merger would be easier.

Instead of doing separate studies on the county government and the school system, why not a single study of city, county and school system operations, with a view toward finding savings through consolidation?

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Even with a consultant's recommendation, it won't be easy, because there are a number of issues that would have to be negotiated separately.

If the city and school board personnel department were combined, for example, which department head would be in charge, and which would be out of a job? And if a city department with unionized workers is combined with a county department with non-union employees, what happens then?

But the fact that these issues aren't easily solved is no reason not to tackle them, because the real expense in any government operation is personnel. And if government's work force can be reduced over time through retirements and attrition, that's where the savings are likely to be.

One idea that ought to be tossed out right now, however, is the proposal to allocate county funds to the School Board by category, rather than as a lump sum. The commissioners have ample opportunities to review school spending, but shouldn't confuse oversight with micro-managing.

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