Tuesday, June 08, 2010

County Council At-Large Candidates on Government Downsizing

Today’s question taken from MCEA’s questionnaires for the At-Large County Council candidates is: What steps do you believe are necessary to maintain the long-term fiscal health of county government, and if you believe the county government needs to “downsize” what services/programs would you prioritize to protect and which do you believe may need to be consolidated, reduced, or eliminated?

Marc Elrich

I think we’re going to have to a number of things. First, I think the bond rating agencies will set higher targets for reserves and for meeting future obligations and that unfunded liabilities will have to be addressed. We’re going to need to develop a plan and that will be painful because it means that a larger portion of future revenue increases are going to placed into reserves and be unavailable for programming. I do think that the risk to our credit rating is real and that failing to maintain our rating would have a negative impact on the cost of government.

As far as downsizing, I think of it more as right sizing. My colleagues talk about years of saying “yes” to everything because it seemed the supply of money would never end. That proved not be true. When I arrived four years ago and asked if the administrative side could tell me what rec programs they ran, who they targeted, who they reached, how did they measure success and how successful were they; they told me they couldn’t answer those questions. The truth is we inherited a government where many programs lack accountability, where the personnel assigned to evaluate programming was inadequately trained and not effective, and where money was spent without review. That needs to change and it is being changed. People talk of silos and duplicated efforts and plenty of union members talk about inefficiencies in day to day operations.

So in the time I’ve been there, I’ve pushed for coordination and evaluation of all youth programming so that we can better target programs to the youth that need them. I pushed for consolidation of recreation programming, scheduling and promotion – and that is now going to happen. I asked this year that we evaluate merging Park Police into a unit of the County police in order to eliminate duplicative management and support staff – and we’ll have a plan of it in six months, and most recently I asked for a report on all housing related services, scattered across three agencies, to see if there are opportunities for consolidation there.

The first goal should be to save money by making government run better and to use accountability to eliminate programs that don’t work or produce little value. My hope is that by saving everything we can by running better, we can avoid cuts to programs we really don’t want to lose. If we simply try to prioritize to hit a dollar mark in the budget without addressing how we operate, we will lose good programs because we passed up opportunities to free up poorly spent revenues.

As for priorities, I place schools, health and human services, public safety, libraries and recreation (including parks), environmental policies and transportation at the top. Many of these things interact with each other. We spend enormous sums outside of MCPS on youth welfare and that spending is critical to the well-being of children when they’re in school.

Nancy Floreen

As our recent activity has shown, “downsizing” is easier said than done. I really don’t think that Montgomery County residents want to see less service. We have done what we can to encourage efficiencies in service delivery, but with marginal effects. That is primarily a management function. I think we need to expand the tax base and create an environment that is more friendly to job expansion so that we can return to a healthy economy and funding for necessary services.

George Leventhal

Education is and always will be the highest priority in the county’s budget, rising from 55.2% of the budget in FY 2010 to 56.6% in FY 2011. We cannot afford to have this percentage continue to rise at the expense of other vital services such as police, fire, health and human services, parks and libraries. My priority has always been to spend limited government dollars for the benefit of those who need the most assistance. In this budget, we suspended or eliminated many programs that I thought were low priority, including free parking at libraries and the Office of the People’s Counsel. We have already cut so deeply that I do not presently have a list of programs I want to eliminate although I am optimistic that consolidating park police and county police functions will result in savings and I am interested in further consolidation proposals.

I believe that county government must fairly compensate employees in all agencies, but I do not think we can afford to provide increases in compensation and benefits that substantially exceed increases in the Consumer Price Index as we did during the last decade. I also think we must take a close look at salary inflation at the top of the wage scale. There are simply too many county employees making salaries of $150,000 and above.

Jane de Winter

The Fitch Rating report also stated that “The fiscal 2008 budget somewhat reversed unsupportable growth trends [in the county’s budget].” In the long run our spending should only grow at the feasible long run growth rate for economic activity and there are virtually no industrialized nations that grow at a 7, 8, or 9% rate over the long run. That type of growth is usually seen in industrializing nations such as China or India and even there it does not last for decades. When revenues grow faster over the short run we have to have the discipline to apply the revenue to one time expenditures such as additional infrastructure investments, or one time expansions. In my mind, it is also unfeasible to continually rely on tax rate increases or new types of taxes to support ever higher spending growth rates.

I believe there are several steps we need to take. We must increase the tax base by attracting and creating more jobs which will also increase our property tax base with the resultant commercial development. A key to being able to attract and create jobs is to make it easier to get things done in the county. As baby boomers retire which, due to the size of that generation, will reduce the proportion of residents in the workforce, we need to take deliberate steps to attract highly qualified workers to our county, provide opportunities for the underemployed to acquire skills (such as the ability to speak English) and certifications that will increase their earning potential; and ensure that all our youth graduate from high school ready for job training or college. New workers will require housing which will also increase the property tax base. These are longer term strategies, although efforts to improve the earning power of our workforce and increase the graduation rate could start immediately.

In the short run we still have several tough years; the projections for the next four years show we are looking at years where we may have to make further cuts or keep spending virtually flat without new revenue sources. Overall, I think that the right size of our government is smaller than it was three to four years ago but not necessarily smaller than it will be in FY11. If further cuts would threaten public safety, our ability to protect the most vulnerable, or our investments in the future, I am willing to consider an increase in property tax rates with credits at lower levels to protect typically lower income homeowners. I believe there are efficiencies to be found by simultaneously trying to simplify and streamline the development process as well as the process for starting a small business. I am interested in looking further at the park/rec merger but have many questions regarding the ultimate cost savings.

Robert Dyer

First, cut spending. Second, increase revenue as I discussed in #2 above. Third, restructure government. We can’t go on like this!

In “downsizing,” protect:
1. Public safety
2. Police and fire salaries/compensation
3. Ride On routes/drivers
4. Services for those medically incapable of providing/caring for themselves
5. Maintain full MCPS funding under state law

Everything else must be on the table, but I would cut the following first:
1. Health and human services
2. Environmental spending that does not directly reduce pollution
3. County cable office
4. Economic development office
5. County Executive’s office

Fred Evans

The first step is that the county council members, in collaboration with the county executive, must work together to analyze our current economic status and determine a “long term” course of action. This analysis cannot be done in a short period of time and it must involve all key stakeholders — the residents - in the process. Since I believe that a strong education system and the safety and security of our residents should continue to be top priorities, any attempt to downsize those functions would be closely scrutinized. I believe that certain services/programs have a positive effect on the economy and must be continually improved.

Hans Riemer

The next Council will need to partner with the County Executive and the separate agencies to focus the mission and priorities of each agency for a new fiscal era, and review work procedures to identify inefficiencies. We need a unified process with stakeholders and Council members that goes beyond the usual committee procedures. The conversation will become a search to define the core services. Because most ideas and services are good ideas, we must distinguish the good from the essential, and we must determine that each dollar we spend is affordable, sustainable, and can only be done by the county government.

For example, if the Department of Recreation were to prioritize serving youth and seniors, how would that change resource allocation? Since health care reform has been passed at the national level, how will that affect our county services? And what about middle managers? With county spending increasing dramatically in recent years, there is no doubt in my mind that we have management positions that we can do without. Diving this deep on our budgets, however, will require a crisis-turnaround mentality and agreement from partners about the nature and scope of the problem.

This mission needs to be supported by a new budget process. Many jurisdictions around the country have moved to a system where agencies start from scratch every year with their budgets, rather than assuming the previous year's budget amounts (zero-based budgeting). This system forces managers to be more strategic and more efficient, because there is no incentive for duplication; but it allows them more flexibility to meet the mission. This budget approach also demands much stronger leadership from the agency heads and a real partnership with labor. Legislation should be authorized to let several county agencies test a zero-based budget next year.

Brandon Rippeon

Job creation and increasing the number of people who pay taxes in MoCo. I advocate a reduction to the size of the Montgomery County Government through job privatization.

Becky Wagner

I am on the record as stating that “the piggy bank is empty, and we do not have enough to pay for what we care about: education, fire and safety, libraries and parks and services to the most vulnerable.” Given we have enormous deficits for the next five years, and are close to a tipping point on tax increases, we must start immediately looking at where services are duplicative. The recent back and forth about Park Police and County Police was neither thoughtful nor constructive. Should we ask the question and evaluate the data? Yes. Should we ask about a Parks Department and a Recreation Department? Yes. Are there things happening in the Executive Branch that we need to stop doing for now? Yes. We have the responsibility to consider openly where duplications exist. This does not mean programs are without merit. It simply means we have to agree what our core services are, and what will we do without until we have restored our financial house. These choices cannot be made in a vacuum.