Thursday, March 26, 2015
Brown's State of the County - An Analysis
It was a dry and lengthy address, punctuated by an emphasis on dollars and complaints about a culture that resists what he calls progress. But after one year in office, one has to question the validity of his own culture, which is a condescending approach to the workforce and the public and a heavy reliance on consultants instead of the people who actually do the work. As one former Council member put it, he's like a Captain who has left port but is still dragging the anchor.
There's no denying that the County's fiscal ship is definitely in danger of running aground. As Brown pointed out, benefits cost increases are three times the rate of tax revenue. But it was Brown who proposed a budget with no tax increase. That came thanks to the Republican majority on Council
Brown also pointed out that the County is facing $49.5 million in expenses and capital needs within the next five years. But this figure assumes an excise tax in 2018 under the Affordable Care Act, which is in trouble in the courts right now. Brown added that there are other capital needs, including bridge repairs, a new parking deck, a coroner's building and improvements at the jail.
These expenses exist at a time when the ever elusive fund balance has dipped to just $8.2 million in a county that spends about $10 million per month.
Brown also pointed to problems at Gracedale, the County's nursing home, which he called a "two-headed dragon." Though the census there has been maximized, the reimbursements from the state and federal government are insufficient to cover the cots of the facility. The County contribution this year is projected at $7.7 million. By 2018, he projects that the County will be spending $12.1 million at the facility.
He explained his approach most clearly when he discussed filling vacancies. Instead of just automatically filling them, he lets them sit. As they pile up, department heads ask to see him, and then he wants to see a justification for the position. He criticized a policy of "just hiring more people and throwing money at the problem."
"There are no sacred cows," stated Brown. "There's nothing sacred although a lot of departments believe they are."
But he failed to ask another question. What if the positions are needed, and he just lets vacancies pile up? Does that "ensure the efficient delivery of services," which he identified as one of his goals?
During his first year in office, Brown's refusal to fill obviously needed positions at the jail has been a nightmare for corrections officers, many of whom are required to work double shifts. It has been a nightmare in the Civil Division , which was down 11 people at one point and is still down eight. In that office, which handles passport application, people have been forced to wait lengthy periods for service, as harried clerks try to do their job. The Courts have complained about missing paperwork making their jobs more difficult. Is this efficient delivery of services?
While letting some departments suffer, others are bursting at the seams. This includes the Department of Community and Economic Development, where people are tripping over each other and have failed to snag even one business over the course of Brown's first year in office.
The biggest change imposed by Brown during his first year in office was his unilateral decision to reduce health care benefits.He almost joked about the backlash, which included three Council meeting attended by hundreds of angry County workers, some of whom would be paying $13,000 deductibles well beyond their salaries. "Welcome to the real world," was the refrain first heard from the private sector. But that changed, too, when it became apparent that Brown was offering no wage hikes and was proposing to reduce other benefits as well. In addition, many County workers have seen their paychecks go in reverse as Easton imposed a commuter tax hike that Brown only half-heartedly opposed. He ultimately purchased gap insurance, but not before alienating most of the workforce. The result was a record number of retirements, over twice the annual average.
Brown failed to address his reliance on consultants or his lack of transparency during his first year in office, in which he once posted armed Deputy Sheriffs outside his office to keep Council members from attending a news conference.
Perhaps the biggest weakness, in both his address and his tenure as Executive, is his presumption that he and his "team" have all the answers. The 2,200-person workforce has answers, too. But instead of listening to them, he's hired consultants.