Survey grades county service

Bookkeeping, repairs to schools noted as problem areas

On average, a `C' rating

Officials call findings out of date, say situation is improved

January 29, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County administration received a barely average "C" grade for how it delivers public services to residents in a national survey being released today.

The county was the lowest performer among the four Maryland counties reviewed, with Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties receiving grades in the "B" range.

The ranking of the county's government business practices and management structure was detailed in a report produced by Syracuse University and a government industry magazine.

Bookkeeping errors in county accounts and a protracted school construction schedule were just two examples of ways the county has failed residents, according to survey authors who studied 40 of the nation's largest counties in four geographic regions.

"Counties are more important than they've ever been," said Peter Harkness, editor and publisher of Governing magazine, which co-produced the survey with Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Anne Arundel officials said the report was based on information provided during County Executive Janet S. Owens' first full year in office and that much of it is out of date. They said that many problems spotlighted by researchers have been fixed or are about to be.

"I think a lot of the things in the report are things that we are moving forward with now," said John M. Brusnighan, the county's chief administrative officer. Owens placed Brusnighan in that position in October in an effort to kick-start a government makeover that she hopes will help her strengthen public safety, the school system and land preservation programs.

"Those things aren't captured in this report," Brusnighan said.

Anne Arundel, with a population of about 490,000 and an $858 million operating budget in the fiscal year that ends June 30, was rated in five areas: financial management, capital management, human resources, managing for results and information technology.

In all but one of those areas the county received poor marks, including a "D+" in managing for results. The survey authors scolded officials for failing to produce a countywide strategic plan and for failing to tie budget allocations to performance standards. A five-year strategic plan is now in the works, Brusnighan said.

In financial management, the county received a "C" because of bookkeeping errors exposed in a March 2000 audit. At the time, County Auditor Teresa Sutherland discovered inadequate monitoring of cash balances and a lack of paperwork detailing up to $20 million in purchases and orders. Owens separated the county's finance and budget offices to fix the problem.

"I think it has been very successful," Sutherland said, referring to the department division.

As for capital management, Anne Arundel received a "C-" because of a "lapsed construction schedule" that caused 15 schools to open late this school year. The county was also criticized for failing to replace or modernize old schools - a project that could cost $400 million or more.

"It's very hard to replace all the schools that need to be replaced when they reach 40 years old," said Ralph Luther, the school system's director of construction. "A downturn in the economy doesn't help."

The county's human resources division received a "C" grade, but special project researcher Michele Mariani said that managers seem to be on the right track. County officials confirmed that human resources officials have started meeting with labor groups quarterly in order to smooth relations.

Anne Arundel did better in information technology, receiving a "B." County officials are working on improving the county's Web site, and eventually, they say, residents and business people will be able to fill out applications and pay for building permits online.

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