Gary decides to give public sector a chance

Comment

October 19, 1997|By BRIAN SULLAM

DELIVERING drinking water and processing sewage are hardly cutting-edge public services, yet they will become the focus of an innovative experiment to begin this fall.

The Department of Public Works, with the blessing of Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary, wants to see if current employees can be trained and motivated to work more efficiently so they can eventually trim operating expenses by 12 percent.

This initiative -- dubbed EXCEL for "Excellence through Cost-Effective Leadership" -- flies in the face of the current fad among municipal governments of turning to private companies to run public services.

Let public sector do it

Even more fascinating is that this strategy does not square with Mr. Gary's conservative Republican ideology that the private sector can be counted on to do a better job than the public side.

Next to rising taxes, rising water bills are the most politically volatile. Keeping a lid on the costs of operating a water and sewer system eliminates a potentially painful headache for elected officials.

Water and sewer systems are huge. Anne Arundel's water system delivers 11 billion gallons annually to 82,268 customers through 1,130 miles of pipe. The sewer system has 1,186 miles of pipe, 240 pumping stations and seven plants to treat waste from 89,696 customers.

About 350 employees are responsible for running this system. Its operating budget is $34 million. The pipes, filtration systems, pumping stations and waste treatment plants are estimated to be worth about $751 million.

Looking into the next century, Anne Arundel's system faces rising costs. Parts of the system are old and will require extensive rehabilitation.

To get an idea of how much money is involved, think of the system as having a life span of 50 years. That means about 2 percent of it depreciates each year, meaning that about $15 million has to be spent annually to keep up the system.

In addition, these utilities must be expanded to handle a larger population. Over the next five years, the system will be spending between $11.3 million and $21.8 million to increase capacity and improve service.

To keep water and sewer rates from rising, the system has to be extremely efficient.

Three choices

The public works department has three choices: Turn water and sewer systems over to private operators; have county employees "bid" for the work against private operators, or attempt to create a new work environment with current employees to increase efficiencies.

Mr. Gary and his public works director, John Brusnighan, have decided to pursue the last option.

They decided that the county would not be well served by bringing in a private operator. Under such a system, the profit-making company would reap the benefit of all the expensive improvements -- paid for by the customers through the county government.

Having employees "bid" against private companies can be a brutal process, which generally starts with drastic layoffs. County officials did not want to experience this kind of bloodletting.

Instead, the county has decided to rewrite the manual for operating water and sewer systems. This fall, the public works department will choose one of seven plants to for a pilot study.

Changing the culture

The first order of business is to change the culture of the workplace. Instead of having the labor-management dichotomy that defines relations between workers and supervisors, the department wants to create teams.

Workers will receive more training so that employees who operate the system will also be able to make repairs. Rank-and-file workers will also be given more authority to make decisions about operations. The department also wants to institute a system of "gainsharing," allowing workers to receive a portion of the savings they achieve.

There will be investments in computers and monitoring technology that will allow a few employees to operate the entire system from a central location.

More entrepreneurial

Another aspect of the plan calls for the water and sewer operations to become more entrepreneurial and opportunistic.

Taking over the Fort Meade water and sewer system is the best example of this aggressiveness. Mr. Brusnighan says the money the federal government will pay the county will more than cover the additional costs of operating.

In addition, he sees "renting out" workers to other municipal systems that need highly trained operators or maintenance people. If the pilot project works, it may be expanded to cover the entire system. Through attrition, the work force of 350 will shrink.

If this program works, don't be surprised if Mr. Gary uses it as a model to squeeze greater efficiency out of other county departments.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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