Rein In Maco

Our View: The Md. Association Of Counties Conference Provides Valuable Information For Officials, But They Should Find Ways To Get Those Benefits At Less Taxpayer Expense

July 31, 2009

You know the state's fiscal situation is serious when officials start talking about cutting back on MACO.

The Maryland Association of Counties summer conference in Ocean City, known by its acronym, looms large in the state's political calendar. Every year, thousands of bureaucrats and elected officials from state and local governments converge on Maryland's beachside resort for three days of panel discussions, speeches and seminars - not to mention a golf tournament, crab feast, political fundraisers, swanky and not-so-swanky receptions, and the occasional bit of beach time.

This week Gov. Martin O'Malley's chief of staff, Michael Enright, sent a memo to state government agencies telling them that in light of Maryland's dire fiscal situation - $280 million in budget cuts last week, $400 million or more coming by the end of the month, and a projected shortfall in the $1.5 billion range next year - it's time to cut back.

Good for him. Mr. Enright asked agencies to limit the number of people who will attend and to have them carpool and share hotel rooms. That's a good start, but the state and local governments that are spending our tax dollars at this conference need to do more to maximize our return on investment.

Though it's easily lampooned as a sandy schmoozefest, MACO does offer some real value for local and state government officials. In particular, several of the seminars this year deal with finding ways to make government more efficient in times of budget trouble, and others cover topics such as the impact on counties of changing environmental regulations, strategies for economic development and advice on minimizing the impact of the swine flu.

(It's understandable if the public is unaware of some of these more salient benefits of MACO; although the Maryland State House press corps travels to Ocean City en masse, it's doubtful whether any reporters have ever actually attended one of those sessions, much less written about them.)

But there are other sides to MACO that citizens might not be so excited to pay for. Much of the exhibit hall at the Ocean City convention center is taken up by booths manned by government officials who hand out taxpayer-funded tchotchkes - stress balls, pens, stickers, keychains, etc. - mostly to each other. The rest of the space is given over to corporate sponsors, companies that do business with state and local governments (or would like to), enabling them to peddle their wares to a captive audience. The people of Maryland are considerate enough to pay to send these companies' prospective clients to the same place.

And then there are the receptions. The governor sponsors an event - the Department of Business and Economic Development technically pays for it - at a restaurant one evening. (The same was true during the Ehrlich administration, and county executives host their own events.) O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese says the governor's reception will be a lower-key affair this year, with a shorter open bar and no food other than desserts, to the tune of about $6,000. But if Mr. O'Malley is looking to cut costs, this would seem a good place to start. After all, what business are we developing here?

Local governments that send officials to the conference could take steps to make sure they're getting the most out of their investment. The conference includes sessions that meet the requirements for the Academy for Excellence in Local Governance program, and local governments should make sure the people they send take advantage of it. Not only does the program offer practical courses, but it also requires proof that officials actually attend the seminars.

MACO itself can do more to make its offerings cost effective. It may be too late for this year's conference, which begins Aug. 12, but in the future the organization could offer webcasts of its seminars so local officials can watch from home.

One final suggestion: Mr. O'Malley is scheduled to demonstrate his StateStat program during the conference. Perhaps he could perform a live analysis of how much we're spending on MACO. Now that would be managing for results.

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