Oversight Panel Calls for No Big Cuts
Cobb County's Citizens Oversight Committee delivers its progress report on improving efficiency in the county government to the Board of Commissioners.
The Cobb County Board of Commissioners is meeting in a work session this afternoon at 1:30, with the only topic on the agenda being the report of the Citizens Oversight Committee. That panel has been meeting since March to craft recommendations for a more efficient county government. We're covering it live.
We'll have a few photos soon and perhaps some video from the meeting later. The oversight committee plans to hold its next meeting July 6 at 9 a.m., and unlike the past couple of meetings, it will be open to the public. Two or three committee members are likely to miss the meeting, based on discussions at the end of this afternoon's session.
By the way, McClung says the committee members paid the costs of producing 30 copies of the report they presented today, so it cost the county nothing. We'll post the full report online as soon as we can.
Lee made an important point in summing up the presentation: The committee hasn't uncovered any areas of gross waste or magical savings, nor has the committee concluded that the county should stop doing anything it's doing now.
While there are some areas that could produce significant savings, such as a revamped health benefits package, market-based salary caps and limits on the accrual of vacation time, the committee's work generally targeted lots of small ways to do the job of government a little better.
The dominant message of the afternoon: The county must stop using furloughs to balance the budget. In the committee's view, furloughs cost the county far more than they save, and they are a way to save managers from having to make tough decisions.
3:57 p.m. Lee notes that the committee across the board showed an appreciation for the employees of Cobb County. "We have the best folks around, and we appreciate that." And with that, we are adjourned. The board will be back for a regular meeting at 7 p.m.
3:56 p.m. The committee as a whole isn't going to be ready for July 26, McClung says, but individual teams are further along. Each has the autonomy to move ahead and meet with commissioners.
3:53 p.m. McClung: We do feel like we have more work ahead of us before we can make final recommendations. The group is still gathering facts and trying to interpret them. "There are going to be some areas where, with all due respect, staff will say you cannot do it that way in government," but the committee will disagree and recommend the changes anyway.
3:52 p.m. Lee says the board has some immediate needs to move ahead with the 2012 budget. He'd like to see some of the immediate recommendations, including health care, resolved as soon as possible through further discussions with staff.
3:51 p.m. Commissioner Woody Thompson says he wants to do whatever the committee wants, echoing Goreham and Ott.
3:50 p.m. Goreham says the committee can meet with commissioners as it sees fit, but the board shouldn't interfere with the process now and force an artificial timeline on the committee.
3:48 p.m. Commissioner JoAnn Birrell praises the work of the committee and says she wants to fold its work into the board's budget process for the next couple of years. But she asks what the committee wants.
3:47 p.m. Commissioner Bob Ott says it's up to committee whether to bring in the commissioners now, and he says it's asking a lot of the volunteers on the committee to get all their work done in the next month.
3:45 p.m. Commissioner Helen Goreham asks whether that’s something the committee wants. McClung says the committee has discussed it and is divided on whether to bring the commissioners into the process now.
3:43 p.m. Lee says the information is so extensive, that it might make sense for the board to wait until July 26 to respond in full to the recommendations, with each board member focusing on the areas he or she oversees. That would engage the board in the process.
3:42 p.m. Lee asks whether the committee has discussed the recommendations with staff, and McClung says no. Some of the ideas were mentioned but not discussed in depth.
3:40 p.m. Board Chairman Tim Lee says his overall impression is that the committee wants to maintain the county services pretty much as they are, just to make them operationally more effficient. "What I hear ... is that there's a desire to maintain the Cobb County that has been the Cobb County that has the respect and admiration of the Southeast and the nation as a whole."
3:38 p.m. Today's presentation was like a fire hose, McClung says, as the committee threw a lot of material at the board.
3:37 p.m. The process is ongoing, McClung says. “We’ve gotten some really good suggestions.”
3:35 p.m. He cites the areas with the potential for immediate impact: vacancies; medical benefits; tax exemption audits; and residential real estate and personal property tax audits.
3:34 p.m. McClung: "We tried to take a businesslike approach as if it were our own business."
3:33 p.m. Time for McClung to sum up.
3:32 p.m. The committee hasn't studied the department's finances in depth yet, but it has some recommendations: Raise fees to the pain pont (a "tough love" program); restore part-time staff and cut the furloughs; make the parks agency the sole landscape maintenance service for the county other than the Fire Department, which maintains the areas around the facilities of which it is the sole occupant; roll the Solid Waste Department and Keep Cobb Beautiful into the parks agency; explore bringing in people from UGA and other horticulture programs to develop a program that eliminates the need for roadside mowing; and implement a work-order system (possibly Maximo, which the Water Department uses).
3:27 p.m. Cutting the hours at recreation facilities is every bit as bad as messing with the libraries when it comes to community reaction, Welden says.
3:25 p.m. The committee says the department needs to implement a work-order system and could consider increased fees.
3:23 p.m. Welden moves on to the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department and praises its director. "If I were going to start a business tomorrow, I think the first person I would bring into it would be Eddie Canon. He is a piece of gold for this county. And he has an impressive team working for him."
3:20 p.m. The team has only skimmed the surface of the Community Development Department, which is a net contributor of almost $21 million to the county's bottom line, Welden says. He praises the agency's new facility at Powder Springs Station. The agency has 52 pickup trucks. "Somehow, I think it tells us something, but I don't know what," Welden says. He repeats the recommendation of moving the DOT planning operation into Community Development.
3:18 p.m. The recommendations for senior services are to keep doing what they're doing, Welden says, and possibly to implement membership fees.
3:16 p.m. Closing the senior day care center made some buses unnecessary, and the agency is looking to sell them, Welden says. Staffing overall is down 30 percent since 2008. Cutting CCT routes also will cut para-transit by about 500 people, Welden says.
3:15 p.m. Collins gives way to Welden, who dives into senior services. "I came away quite impressed" with the operation, Welden says.
3:12 p.m. Before closing satellite libraries, Collins says, consider the needs of the users. Increase the size of some locations and increase the number of computers, but reduce the growth of the book collection to a minimum and cut the number of periodicals offered. The committee also calls for increasing private fundraising for the library, increasing the use of volunteers and cutting the number of full-time employees. Finally, the library shouldn't be responsible for social needs such as homeless people and latchkey kids, Collins says,
3:10 p.m. The library organization is tall and fragmented, Collins says, and the quality of the 17 libraries varies greatly. The library collection is extensive and expensive to maintain. The number of computers for public use is being reduced. The user fees and fines are low.
3:08 p.m. Solid Waste is a lean department now that most of the operation has been contracted out. The committee suggests considering combining what's left with the parks agency because their duties mesh.
3:07 p.m. It's Collins' turn to talk. By the way, the goal is for the presentation to be done in two hours, allowing an hour for Q&A.
3:04 p.m. Just a little bit of marketing money would go a long way for CCT, Rhoden says. Bus advertising is a revenue source, so implement it. And consider zone-based fares instead of a flat fare. Rhoden follows his colleagues in citing the problem of furloughs and implementing a sane system of raises. Rhoden suggests budgeting for 3 percent raises, then having managers decide how to distribute that money.
3:03 p.m. CCT tracks tickets sold but not the number of people who ride the buses, Rhoden says. The best guess is 60,000 people use the service, but we don't really know, he says.
3:02 p.m. The only real savings from CCT would come from cutting or shortening routes. The county is managing the program well. Rhoden calls for taking steps to encourage CCT workers to cut obesity and end smoking.
3:01 p.m. Rhoden isn't sold on the four-day workweek for DOT.
3 p.m. Rhoden suggest selling some of the DOT services, such as GIS and street light management. He calls for thinking regionally and entrepreneurially.
2:59 p.m. The SPLOST program management needs to be studied carefully. The system might be the right one, but it might not, Rhoden says. Let's be sure. Morale is low in the Transportation Department. There's a heavy use of contractors. The county has to spend more on equipment maintenance and has to buy some serious software for management.
2:55 p.m. "Get out of the golf course business. You have no business being in the golf course business," Rhoden says. "Sell it, get rid of it, be done with it." He says accept whatever loss as a sunk cost. That's despite his high praise for the Cobblestone management company, Affiniti. He says the county doesn't have accounting processes appropriate for business.
2:52 p.m. Rhoden would love to see some tracking mechanism across the county to judge how many people each department serves. He says the Extension Service should be regionalized. The county has made less and less use of it as it has urbanized.
2:51 p.m. Rhoden is addressing the Extension Service, but first he says, "Every employee I’ve met in the past 10 weeks ... are first-class, qualified, educated people."
2:50 p.m. The team has not touched the Water Department, which is the overwhelming majority of the budget for the departments the trio studied. They also have more work to do on parks and community development.
2:48 p.m. David Welden steps to the microphone on behalf of the community services and infrastructure team, backed by Beverly Collins and Jim Rhoden.
2:46 p.m. "We have the best medical examiner's office in the state, if not the country," Barr says.
2:45 p.m. The committee has found that the circuit defender's figure for its costs, $5.2 million, appear to be accurate, not the grand jury's recent claim of $8.1 million.
2:44 p.m. The DA's office and the solicitor general's office are lean operations but might be able to save on their law enforcement costs, Barr says.
2:42 p.m. The committee is still looking into whether the county has the right number of Superior Court and State Court judges, whether pooled court reporters would be better than assigned reporters, and whether salaried reporters or contract reporters are better.
2:40 p.m. The Superior Court clerk's office has been a leader in modernizing records with electronic filing and should serve as a model for other court clerks, Barr says.
2:38 p.m. The committee questions the need for a separate director of public safety, and if that agency remains, the committee suggests the director should report to the commissioners and not to the county administrator.
2:37 p.m. The fire safety village appears to be a drain on the Fire Department, Barr says, and it's not clear who is legally responsible for it.
2:36 p.m. The fire chief is concerned that Cobb is close to losing its ISO rating of 3 and falling to a 4 (lower is better). The committee wants to study whether the county needs 29 or 30 fire stations or can consolidate. Another question: Should municipal fire departments be consolidated into the county agency.
2:34 p.m. The biggest problem in the E-911 department is the high employee turnover rate, Barr says.
2:30 p.m. The No. 1 issue for the Sheriff's Office is getting other jurisdictions, including the state, to pay the full $55 per day it costs the county jail to house inmates, as opposed to the current $22 reimbursement.
2:28 p.m. Public safety would save money and gain camaraderie by consolidating its two training facilities into one, Barr says. He and McClung also question the need for the Sheriff's Office and Police Department to maintain separate crime scene investigation units.
2:26 p.m. Barr calls for a closer look at overtime and furlough issues in the Police Department. He also says the department needs to reconsider whether the department needs all of its special units, such as 11 teams under Special Ops.
2:25 p.m. By the way, I have to note that the room is much more full than it was an hour ago, with a crowd probably around 80 people.
2:23 p.m. Barr: "I have been extremely impressed with the work of the various departments we studied and with the men and women who occupy offices in those departments."
2:21 p.m. Bob Barr takes the lectern on behalf of the court services and public safety team, which consists of him and McClung.
2:20 p.m. Information Services is too reactive to requests from departments instead of working to implement an overall strategy, Dyke says.
2:18 p.m. Property management likely has lots of room for more efficiency, including reducing the 6,000 work orders it handles each year and cutting overlap with other departments (Fire, Parks, Water and Sheriff)
2:16 p.m. On Tax Assessor Phil Hogsed's side, Dyke wants to review the bidding for contracted services because there was only one qualified bidder last time. Budget cuts halted residential audits; the committee wants them back.
2:15 p.m. Dyke praises the integration between the tax commissioner and the tax assessor. An immediate opportunity under Tax Commissioner Gail Downing's office is to implement audits of the homestead and conservancy tax exemptions, Dyke says. Her office has implemented budget cuts but not furloughs.
2:13 p.m. "The furloughs are a nightmare to manage," Dyke says as she turns to the Finance Department. The department is down to 33 people from 41. Possible savings could come from combining finance and purchasing. The committee also recommends a cost-benefit analysis of small grants.
2:10 p.m. Fleet management is very cost-conscious, Dyke says, but there are opportunities for efficiency through such efforts as electronic capture of mileage and the elimination of duplicate inventory systems. The county also might have more vehicles than needed. "Overall, I'm very impressed with the fleet management department," Dyke says.
2:08 p.m. Dyke says the county's internal audit department is underused.
2:06 p.m. In building maintenance, the county is overdue for an energy audit, Dyke says, and the county should work with Southern Polytechnic State University's Engineering Technology Center.
2:05 p.m. Central Support accounts for about a third of the county's $328 million operational budget.
2:04 p.m. Booker is done, and Laurie Dyke takes over, representing the Central Support team.
2:03 p.m. The committee recommends adding two permanent committees with outside expertise to report to the commissioners: an audit committee and a compensation committee. To avoid politics in the selections, the committee suggests having an external selection system.
2 p.m. The county has done good work on pensions, Booker says, but it should eliminate the "rule of 80," which maximizes the pension when the employee's age plus years of service equals 80. It drives people to leave early, he says. He also says the policy of rehiring retirees doesn't make sense.
1:58 p.m. The committee recommends that the county stop using furloughs because they hurt morale and allow "management to escape tough decisions."
1:57 p.m. Booker says too many policies aren't market-based. He says the policy of giving comp time of 1.5 hours for every hour of overtime for about 300 employees should be eliminated, and the accrual of vacation time should end at 480 hours. Employees should take vacation to remain fresh, he says.
1:55 p.m. About 300 employees with good or lower job performance ratings are paid 10 percent or more over market. Booker says the goal should be to pay good employees 95 percent to 105 percent of market.
1:52 p.m. Revamping the medical care plan to shift more of the burden onto employees over a three-year period could save $7.5 million to $12 million a year when fully implemented, the committee says.
1:51 p.m. Booker: If the county eliminated most full-time vacancies, it could save $5 million to $6 million in the fiscal 2012 budget.
1:47 p.m. Vance Booker is presenting the report from the team studying the county's organizational structure and human resources. Also on the team are Ford Thigpen and Robert Plunkett.
1:46 p.m. The committee does not favor across-the-board solutions, and it does think some overlapping units can be eliminated.
1:45 p.m. The county is very large and very complex, McClung says, and the overall strategy and priorities are not clearly understood by front-line employees or the public.
1:44 p.m. McClung: The committee received more than 400 comments, more than a quarter of them believed to be from county employees.
1:41 p.m. McClung says the committee operated by addressing three questions: "Are we doing the right things? Are we doing it the right way? Are we paying the right amount?"
1:38 p.m. Brett McClung, the chairman of the committee, presents opening remarks. The bound progress report is 112 pages, plus some supplemental printouts.
1:29 p.m. It's a sparse crowd this afternoon. Besides the committee members, fewer than 30 people are here as we start. That's government during a summer afternoon.