Here was my first thought when I heard that County Administrator David Hamilton wants to break down territorial walls between county offices, forcing them to share functions such as human resources and fleet management, and that, simultaneously, he wants county leaders to concentrate on saving the services people actually use rather than the jobs of supervisors and managers:
This is all in the early stages, a subject Hamilton raised with county commissioners late last week. And for it to really work, he needs constitutional officers to cooperate and for we voters to pressure the ones who don't.
Still, by even proposing these moves, Hamilton addresses a basic frustration shared by people of every political orientation who have regular dealings with the county government:
Outside county offices, you see parks that are neglected and in danger of being closed. You see the slummy mess allowed to spread because of deep cuts to code enforcement. You search library shelves in vain for a decent book to read — if, that is, you're lucky enough to come by at a time when the doors are open.
You see, in short, the gutting of a bunch of functions that directly add to the quality and value of life in the county.
And inside county offices? Depending on the department, you see a lot of cubicles filled by a lot of people — quite a few of them earning more in salary and benefits than the entire annual budget of the much-maligned symbol of frivolous government spending, the Little Rock Cannery. Most are busy, some overwhelmed. But in the case of a few, you wonder what the heck they do all day.
In one way, Hamilton's proposal is just another budgeting strategy, one that lets his bosses go after some of the highly paid county workers whose names, along with their salaries, were printed on signs waved by blood-thirsty anti-tax activists a few years ago.
But in another way, this is a lot bigger. It's a chance for county leaders to do something they really haven't done very well as revenues declined in recent years: take on the big questions about the role of government, define its core duties, decide whether the positions of people doing redundant jobs in different county offices are really as important as serving residents.
Consider, for example, that restoring $200,000 of proposed cuts to the parks budget would be enough to keep every one of them open. Take an additional $200,000 from the Sheriff's Office administrative staff and I'd bet that nobody outside its building would even notice.
There's also potential savings in the other part of Hamilton's plan: adjusting the salaries of a few high-ranking employees. Should the manager of a utility plant make as much as his boss, environmental services director Joe Stapf? Should the road maintenance manager make $15,000 more per year than transportation services director Susan Goebel?
And does the county really need a mosquito control supervisor, at a cost of about $71,000, when Stapf has proven himself as a first-class administrator with a sophisticated knowledge of that subject?
Well, maybe. Think of the dangerous chemicals involved and the potential for innovations that would mean using less of them or, eventually, none at all.
I like the idea of having an educated specialist in charge, which is not to argue for this one job, just to make the point that we need to be careful — that we can't join in the common vilification of public employees. Remember that most of the supervisors are in their positions because they have experience and qualifications.
And if their salaries and benefits seem generous now, a few years ago a lot of them looked like suckers for going to work every day when they could be making real money flipping houses.
So one part of Hamilton's plan — terminating the high-level employees and forcing them to reapply for their jobs — strikes me as unnecessary and demeaning.
This is a grim task, reassigning workers, cutting their salaries, laying off some of them. No reason to make it grimmer.