Chance for mayor to emerge as hero

July 30, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

YEARS from now, when people talk of "O'Malley's March," they won't be referring to the mayor's Irish folk band but to the uphill chore the new mayor faced tackling government reform.

If the mayor sees this march through, he could emerge a hero.

But if he follows the example of former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and shelves efforts to transform City Hall operations, Mr. O'Malley's honeymoon with city voters could turn to bitter acrimony -- and mar his future ambitions.

Governance is a boring-sounding term that is all-important to a chief executive of a major city.

Are residents happy with the delivery of services? Can they get prompt relief from City Hall? Is government lean and mean, or is it bloated, complacent and costly?

Baltimore's municipal agencies are in woeful shape. Mr. O'Malley knew this when he took the job. That critical judgment has been confirmed in a massive report compiled by two business groups.

Fixing what's broken could determine the new mayor's overall success.

Mr. O'Malley can't accomplish much until government expenses are cut, new sources of revenue are found and operations are efficiently streamlined. Here are just a few of the things business executives found in city government:

The fire department's repair shop is itself in disrepair. One position has been vacant for three years. On weekends, there aren't enough mechanics to make major repairs. They can't even get light bulbs replaced.

The city's health department, not the board of education, runs school-based health programs; the city's housing department, not the schools, runs Head Start education programs; the housing department, not the social services department, also runs three day-care centers. Privatizing just those day-care centers could save $500,000 a year.

The housing department's technology is so antiquated that tens of thousands of records for tenant rent collections, landlord payments, utilities management, inventory and work orders are done by hand.

Business leaders could find no instance in recent years when anyone in the 2,200-worker housing department had been fired for poor performance.

Housing officials have been covering an annual $8 million operating deficit by stripping money from the capital budget. More than a third of the department's five-year capital plan is earmarked for "non-essential items."

Because all trash-collection crews start work at the same time, they arrive at the disposal plant at day's end at the same time, creating long back-ups and needless overtime pay. Staggering the start of collection runs would save $150,000.

The municipal fleet of 6,000 vehicles could be cut by 1,000, saving $500,000 a year. Selling them could net another $1 million.

Simply managing city government's energy consumption could save $1 million a year.

The city's entire information technology system is dysfunctional and on the verge of collapse. There's no coordination.

The business executives gave the mayor hundreds of pages containing sensible ways to save money and improve efficiency.

But the mayor faces strong opposition from entrenched bureaucrats, stubborn labor unions and others who benefit from retaining a management system that rewards sloth and ineptitude.

Laws must be changed, labor contracts modified. New approaches must be embraced by managers and workers used to doing things the old-fashioned way.

But there's optimism in the business leaders' report, too.

Lots of opportunities exist to squeeze millions of dollars in savings. Programs can be privatized. Fees can be raised. Private-sector and foundation funds can be solicited. Smarter management can save time and money. Creative approaches can result in better-run programs and new revenue sources for city coffers.

Simply setting out measurable goals and rewards for workers and managers could improve performance.

All this may not seem sexy, especially to a mayor focused on bringing down the crime rate and maintaining his other role as a guitar-strumming folk singer. But good politicians learn how to govern effectively -- even in cities like Baltimore, where the wheels of government have come off the track.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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