County hopes rewards will boost output Council to vote tonight on part of 'gain-sharing' employee incentive plan

October 16, 1995|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Supporters call it a "voyage of discovery." A cultural revolution. A national model for government workers.

Others describe it as an unproven experiment, one aimed at Baltimore County's thousands of employees.

The county's "gain-sharing" proposal -- designed to boost productivity with cash rewards -- is a version of employee incentive programs used by companies across the nation. Few NTC localities have adopted the programs, but County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III made it a cornerstone of his 1994 campaign, and the County Council likely will approve a key component tonight.

"We're on a voyage of discovery here," Dr. Michael A. Conte, the University of Baltimore economist who will direct the project, told county managers recently.

The bottom line, he said, is to reward employees for teamwork. Over the next few months, county officials will start developing a pilot program in one agency. That agency is to be chosen by January, and the plan put into effect in July. In three to five years, the program will be extended throughout the county, which has 7,200 employees outside the school and library systems.

The idea is to analyze each job and find ways to measure its value and service. Then officials will calculate savings that improvements could achieve and decide how to reward groups of employees who reach those goals.

Gain-sharing is a vague term to county workers and their leaders, though they will participate in crafting the program. Union leaders are eager for its rewards, but suspicious about how work will be evaluated.

"How do you measure the guy who opens and closes the drawbridge over Bear Creek?" said Edward M. Pedrick Jr., president of Local 921 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"How many times he opens it? Whether he polishes it in between openings? I think it's a good idea, but I just don't know much about it," he added.

Existing incentive programs in business and government may differ from the county's proposal, but they show how the concept can work, says Stephen L. Kirchner, Mr. Ruppersberger's chief financial aide and the person in charge of getting the program started.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., for example, began a pay-for-performance program for white-collar workers in 1993 and extended it to line workers this year, says Diane Featherstone, manager of staff services for the utility. Employees can get annual raises -- up to 9.25 percent of their pay for lower level employees and up to 14.25 percent for professionals.

"We wanted to focus on paying for results," Ms. Featherstone said. The program should pay for itself in greater employee productivity, the concept Mr. Ruppersberger has emphasized, she said.

Rick Schaefer, an engineering supervisor at the C. P. Crane power plant in eastern Baltimore County, likes the system. "It gives you something to shoot for. It's measurable. It's specific," he said.

Another example is the small North Carolina town of Zebulon, near Raleigh. Assistant finance director Chris D. Day says the town's program, used for three years, has put an average of $125 a year into the pockets of almost all the town's 50 employees.

Workers who pass a performance review by supervisors get a small percentage of the money unspent at the end of each year. The town council sets the figure -- which this year was 5 percent -- based partially on residents' ratings of town services.

Mr. Kirchner says the new Baltimore County program won't replace all general pay raises, but will help in years when none are forthcoming.

"We're not going to measure police by the number of arrests," Mr. Ruppersberger told his cabinet, but the use of police cars might be measured. If one car needs new brakes after six months, and another needs them after one year, that could mean changes are due.

Tonight, the County Council is expected to approve a $200,000 contract for Fox Lawson & Associates of Phoenix and Minneapolis to help the county develop its program. The council has approved $50,000 in fees for Dr. Conte to work with the personnel office on the program.

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