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National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

www.NACo.org

 

 Counties embrace reform of local government

By Charles Taylor
SENIOR STAFF WRITER

Fiscal times might not be desperate in Suffolk County, N.Y., but they do call for drastic, if not desperate, measures. Faced with a projected $530 million budget deficit between now and 2013, one county legislator says it’s time to “totally transform county government and the role it plays in the lives of citizens.”

“We must be strategic in reconceptualizing what county government is and how it operates,” Legislator DuWayne Gregory wrote in a letter to his constituents.

He told County News that in better times, the county has funded programs that weren’t mandated but were seen as local priorities. “Given the current fiscal environment, we may have to reprioritize ourselves.”

According to a recent IBM white paper, “Flatlined: Rethinking the local government business model for a future of zero growth,” local governments need a new approach to the way they are organized, managed and motivated.

“The local government business model is broken,” it said. “The infrastructure and services that local governments are expected to provide cannot be financed based on existing revenue streams and current approaches to government operations.”

Suffolk County and Loudoun County, Va. are among those where local elected officials are working to re-envision their government structures to deal with new economic realities.

In Suffolk County, population 1.5 million, it’s a process that’s being undertaken with what Gregory calls “compassionate efficiency.”

He describes it as “completely rethinking how we can continue to provide the services that are the most critical to the largest number of county residents, while at the same time realizing that government cannot — nor should it ever even try — to be all things to all people.”

Tough decisions are being made, he said, and while the county has little choice regarding state and federally mandated spending, it must look critically at programs and services it has provided at its own discretion in the past. This extends even to such areas as health and social services programs. “We will try to maximize revenues in a way that allows us to minimize how much each person will feel it,” he said.

The County Legislature and county executive have already identified $162 million in new revenue — about one-third of the total deficit — in their Stage One Mitigation Plan. Creating its own traffic bureau will help county keep more of the money generated in Suffolk County under its control.

Currently, when a motorist is ticketed, more than 70 percent of the value of the ticket goes to the state, and 25 percent stays in Suffolk, Gregory said. “A local traffic bureau will reverse that equation and make sure that violators’ fines go towards funding traffic and safety measures here on [Long] Island, not upstate.” It’s an option that previously has been available to the county, but Gregory said the prior administration was loath to pursue it. This and other “low-hanging fruit” are being pursued as a first step.

In Loudoun County, the Board of Supervisors created a Government Reform Commission in January. “This commission is intended to generate actionable recommendations and a blueprint for streamlining county government and reducing costs,” supervisors’ Chairman Scott York said at the time.

With 312,000 residents, this Washington, D.C. exurb has for years been one of the fastest growing counties in the nation; but like other counties it suffered during the recession and housing bust.

Tom Julia chairs the 13-member reform commission, with representatives of each of the county’s eight districts and five at-large members appointed by the supervisors. He sees the commission’s work as a 12-to-18-month process. It will make recommendations to the board on both “long-standing issues and a lot of sacred cows.”

One of the biggest areas the commission will tackle is the relationship between the County Board and School Board and what can be done to consolidate activities in a variety of areas.

“For example, site selection, land acquisition, construction, IT functions, HR functions, other things,” Julia said. “There’s been a very modest amount of that (collaboration) that has occurred in part because of certain statutory requirements and in part because of turf.”

He sees this as perhaps the “most significant” area where the commission can provide insights to the supervisors. Other issues include whether to professionalize the county’s largely volunteer fire service, and if it should convert from a sheriff’s department to a police department for law enforcement.

“At the end of the day, I suppose there’ll be people that are disappointed if we don’t come back with recommendations that ultimately lead to some cost savings, but that is not solely what’s driving us here,” Julia said. “We’re clearly looking at structural issues and how business gets done, and do we have sustainable models of how we’re doing things.”

 

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