Counties pay for paths to savings Workers get rewards for cutting corners, taking on extra duties

July 02, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The steaming vat of spinach and turkey kielbasa isn't just lunch for inmates at Howard County's jail. It's gold for Danielle Mason.

Mason is one of 118 Howard County employees to receive a cash reward for cutting costs or increasing productivity as part of the county's gain-sharing program -- an increasingly popular idea in local governments.

Kitchen staff at Howard's detention center saved more than $7,300 in three months by switching from ground beef to ground turkey, replacing macaroni and cheese (the cheese was expensive) with macaroni salad and changing to cheaper brands for the 70,400 meals they served.

Four employees were paid $934 each for their efforts. A fifth will receive her share soon. Mason used part of her money to buy a gold bracelet.

"The guy that changes from beef to turkey it's not brain surgery, but is a whole lot of people getting together and doing lots of little things rather than the giant thing," said Jerry Newman, director of the Center for Team Performance at the University of Buffalo.

One Howard County inmate gave the program a thumbs-up.

"I think the food is great," said inmate Rich Remson, 39. . "I've been in a couple of jails and the spice here seems to be better. They've taken an interest in feeding us well."

Lower costs and taxes

Such programs, long celebrated in the private sector, are becoming increasingly popular in local governments seeking to lower costs and taxes, experts say. Howard and Baltimore counties have similar programs. Anne Arundel County is about to begin one in its Department of Public Works. Carroll and Harford counties don't have any.

"Governments never thought of themselves as having to be particularly competitive until the 1990s," said Newman, a management professor. "The underlying premise behind gain-sharing is that the people who know the best how to cut costs" are the employees.

Howard County officials say they are not skimping on inmates' food but are shopping smarter and seasoning better. The ground turkey, for example, is flavored with a beef cube: "It's really hard to tell the difference," said kitchen staff supervisor Louise Martin.

The portions have not been reduced. All menus comply with state guidelines. There have been no complaints, officials say.

Turkey is, after all, more healthful than beef, officials say.

"These people who are incarcerated aren't getting any exercise," said Gale Benson, county coordinator of the gain-sharing program. "Why do you need to continue to clog their arteries?"

Baltimore County was the first in the region to begin a gain-sharing program. What started as a campaign promise has turned into about $20,000 for about 150 employees in the jail, the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Department of Public Works.

Programs there have included shaving the jail kitchen budget by switching to generic brands and new recipe systems. Park workers won the contract to cut the county's grass at a lower cost than a private company and got to keep part of the savings. Public works employees did light preventive maintenance on highway salt-spreading machines to avoid costly replacement of parts lost to corrosion and rust during storage.

Howard County started its pilot program in July 1997 in three areas -- all of which have shown success.

Faster 911 dispatching

In the 911 dispatch center, the 56 employees have reduced the time needed to handle a call by 14 seconds, largely through using the computers to send partial messages to police or fire departments' dispatchers, then updating the messages later. rTC The employees dispatch aid 21 seconds faster.

"It was just a little bit of training," said Jack Blakely, communications supervisor. Those employees earned $750 each.

Howard's Citizens Services Department created 111 activities or classes, including tai chi exercises for the elderly; an exercise class called "Saturday Plus" for frail elderly; and computer and art classes. "We thought we could improve the quality of service with a lower cost," Director Manus J. O'Donnell said.

The 58 employees each earned $450.

Benson withholds a certain portion of each employee's bonus to ensure that his or her hard work continues. At the end of the year, if they are on the same path, they will receive the remaining money.

Employees say they feel proud they're being rewarded for putting their minds to work.

"Now I want more," said Mason.

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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