Thoughts on Meeting the Legally Mandated Cuts in Macon-Bibb: Why There’s No Way to Avoid the Tough Conversation About Personnel Cuts, and What Can Practically Be Done to Achieve Them
By Alan Wood, March 8, 2015
Editor of Georgia Watchdog
Macon-Bibb County has around 2,200 local governmental employees, not counting jobs related to the school system. The salaries of these government employees make up the lion’s share of the consolidated budget. In fact, around 80% of the entire budget outlay goes towards salaries. When consolidation was still in discussion, there was a mandate that the newly merged entity must cut costs by 20% by FY2019. That provision is a major reason consolidation was finally approved after so many failed attempts in the past. People looked forward to the tax cuts that a consolidated government had promised to deliver.
Based on the 2014 budget, a 20% cost reduction would be approximately $33 million. Some progress toward that goal of about four percent annually was already achieved in that 2014 budget, though, so the good news is that somewhat less, probably “only” about $27 million more, is additionally required to meet the promised and legislatively required goal of cost reduction. Still, the easiest cuts have been made, and it’s important that the Macon-Bibb government continue in earnest this year to look even harder at cost savings. In this article, I’d like to offer my assessment, and a few suggestions to reach that goal.
So far, I’ve heard the mayor and commissioners offer two possible solutions. Mayor Reichert is trying to make early retirement more attractive to 360 employees who qualify by presumably sweetening their retirement package with incentives. Another less attractive option from the taxpayer’s perspective is a 1-mill increase for a $2 million bump to fund such things as indigent care, museums, health care, and the arts. Neither of these options will be enough to reduce costs of about 4 percent needed this year to stay on track, not to mention that we also were promised a tax cut, not a tax hike.
The problem with both of these options is they appear to be putting lipstick on a pig, and are failing to address the underlying issue, which is the need for spending and personnel cuts. I took a look at the proposed 2015 budget, and several things stuck out to me as potential areas that could result in significant savings.
Out of the $165 million budget, around $110 million is collected from property and sales tax, and the rest from various license, fees, and other types of taxes. The link that I provided above for 2015 is not very detailed, but the one from 2014 offers a better break-down in spending with more detail. If you have the time and inclination, I imagine you too could find many departments to cut or at least question.
If it’s fairly easy for citizens to see where cuts could be made, why is it so difficult for the politicians to come to the same realization, and see what appears so obvious? Well, there are a lot of reasons, but some of the most noteworthy include pet projects, political pressure, cronyism, inefficiency in purchasing, poor negotiation skills at getting better prices, inability to make tough decisions, and probably, most importantly, a fear of upsetting groups and disrupting individuals’ lives with layoffs.
Some spending lines are individually small enough, but can still add up over time, and with repetition. Recently, the Macon Telegraph wrote an editorial opposed to a proposed bill in the General Assembly that would relax requirements for the need for governments to pay for legal newspaper notices about tax increases, government budgets, bids for public contracts, zoning changes, election information, new laws, and other government actions. The Telegraph was opposed, of course, because this is a big cash cow for them. In 2015, though, it’s past time for all for this to be done online, and for free. Under the current state law, I’m not sure if that’s yet possible, but once it is an option, that will immediately result in savings to the Macon-Bibb taxpayers. This is just one example of many where cost savings are possible. All you have to do is genuinely want to look for them, and then make the cuts possible.
Last summer I visited Claystone Beach often. At the beach, I frequently saw no less than three armed officers who mostly sat in the shade and talked amongst themselves. Every once in a while, I observed them walking down the beach. I love beaches, and have been to to hundreds all over the world. In Florida, where the beach can stretch for many miles with thousands of beachgoers, I can understand the need for a beach patrol that also can act as lifeguards riding on an ATV. But at Claystone Beach in Macon, with typically only a few hundred patrons at most on a Sunday, I don’t see the need for as many as four armed patrolman. In fact, quite frankly, I don’t even see the need for one. Just let the Sheriff’s department patrol it occasionally. This is another example where the logic appears to be that just because it has been done for decades, we should begin to just accept that those jobs are needed.
Gwinnett county managed to cut $32 million from their budget in a year without cutting any services. They began cutting costs in 2008. They managed to realize these savings by using the same strategies thousands of other counties across the country have done, which include common-sense ideas like strategic sourcing, shared services, IT rationalization, managed application services, cutting down travel, optimizing facilities, and not being afraid to reinvent the wheel. Innovative governments are able to lower their expenses while simultaneously providing their citizens with a higher level of service and higher efficiency.
The entire population of Bibb county is around 154,721, but the latest data I could find shows our entire labor force around 73,430, with 66,954 of those employed. 9,719 of that number include government workers, and when you drill down further to remove federal and state workers, we have a total of 6,379 local government workers in Bibb. That works out to 10.5% of employed people in Bibb receive paychecks from local taxpayer funds. That is a significant number of people.
Chances are that if you’ve called a private company recently, there was probably a short survey at the end of the phone call or perhaps by email. Companies rely on those surveys to make sure their agents are courteous and helpful. They want problems to be resolved on the first call to save money. When one agent receives a lot of negative feedback, or a customer has to call again, there is potentially an issue with the agent that needs to be addressed. Just this past week I called Netflix over an issue, and was given a one question survey at the end of the call. Why can’t this be done for Macon-Bibb departments as well?
Here in Macon-Bibb, no such surveys exist, to my knowledge. You can count yourself lucky to ever even speak with a live person on the phone. Is this due to the fact that all Macon-Bibb government workers are simply exceptional? I think not. In fact, on locals websites and social media, I’ve read dozens of reports detailing unbelievably rude local government employees dealing with the public. Such conduct is fostered in part because there are no surveys, or an easy method to file a complaint. For members of the public undertaking certain tasks, like obtaining permits, complaints commonly include rude treatment by government employees. In private businesses, it’s fairly easy to complain, and problem employees can be warned or eventually fired. But no such accountability exists for many government employees in Macon-Bibb. This needs to change.
Evaluate Job Performance
So my first pragmatic suggestion to reduce the number of 2,200 employees is to start systematically targeting poorly performing Macon-Bibb employees by introducing surveys for those who deal directly with the public. Reward the ones who perform well, and retrain or fire the ones who consistently receive bad reviews.
I also realize that many employees don’t deal directly with the public, so different evaluation methods need to be adopted to monitor their job performance. I don’t think, though, that supervisor assessments are sufficient to gauge performance. Often, personality, friendship, other biases, or even the simple desire for peace, will distort a supervisor’s job performance rating to the point that it glows when it should be a warning. In jobs where productivity comparisons can be done to compare the work with other people doing a similar job, that would be the fairest way to evaluate performance. In other cases, we’d probably need someone from outside that department to occasionally observe and audit the department — including the ability of managers and supervisors to deal with problem employees.
Identify Departments That Can Be Privatized
The former unincorporated areas are charged $38.25 per quarter for garbage collection, as opposed to the former city area being charged $45 per quarter. That is a considerable chunk of change. Unless Macon-Bibb can figure out a way to match the rate charged by the private company, we should likely get out of it entirely and allow the private sector to handle garbage collection.
I imagine there are a number of other departments as well where private sector companies are better equipped to provide a superior service at a lower cost. Attrition and retirements alone are not going to be nearly enough to realize cost savings and lower taxes. Tax hikes are what politicians do instead of reforming government, because they are afraid of making the tough decisions.
Realistic Salaries Based On Private Sector Salaries Right Here in Macon-Bibb County
A recent report by WMAZ, for example, showed that Mayor Reichert more than doubled the salaries for some in his inner circle of managers. Reichert told 13WMAZ that those increases were justified, based on increased responsibilities and competitiveness to surrounding counties. “We didn’t want to be paying the most out of anyone in the state, but we also didn’t want to be paying less than Warner Robins, for example. This isn’t the same person doing the same job that all of a sudden got $20,000 more. This is the same person doing a different job for a different organization with greater responsibilities and oversight making more money,” Reichert said.
Here is the problem with Reichert’s position. These people presumably should have been working hard at their former positions. They are not suddenly working an additional 40 hours a week. What people make in other counties is largely irrelevant. Charles Coney, assistant county manager of operations, for example, makes $114,795.20 a year, more than double what he was making before consolidation.
How many people in Macon-Bibb in the private sector are making that salary? Unless Corey suddenly received an M.B.A. from Wharton or INSEAD, there’s no justification for doubling his salary. Corey didn’t quit, nor was he headhunted by another county when he made less than half that salary so there is no justification for that big of a jump. It seems that Reichert’s real motivation for the salary bump had more to do with the fact that Corey is a trusted friend and close subordinate, rather than not being able to find someone qualified to do that job for $60,000.
Mayor Reichert seems to be suggesting that unless he doubled the salary, these people would be headhunted by other counties. That is extremely unlikely. There is no rational explanation for increasing the salaries to that degree for people not putting in substantially more hours per week. I can understand a small raise of around a few thousand a year with some additional duties — but a $65,000 raise? That’s absurd and irresponsible, and undermines morale among those not so handsomely rewarded.
I don’t doubt for a second that if these jobs were advertised at the former salaries they would be inundated with qualified candidates willing to fill them. Georgia is near the worst states in terms of high unemployment, and Bibb is among the worst in Georgia. I can guarantee you that Reichert would have had a large pool of qualified applicants for any job paying more than $40,000.
Macon-Bibb is not competing against Houston, Richmond, or Chatham counties. Macon-Bibb is primarily competing against a pool of private sector workers in Bibb county. When you pay more than double what most people make in the private sector, I can assure you that if any disgruntled administrative officers decided to quit because they aren’t making six figures, they could quickly be replaced. If Paulding, Douglas, or Fayette county want to overpay their county manager, let them. That is not a justification for Macon-Bibb to pay more than the market warrants.
What is even more sickening about these massive raises is people in jobs like custodial services, public works, and other departments are making less than the poverty level. Any and all salary increases should have begun from the lowest paid employees first. The council really screwed the pooch on this one by approving those raises. The budget also passed unanimously, which begs the question as to why they were all asleep at the helm.
Improvements Need to Be Made in Communicating With the Public
I encourage the Macon-Bibb government first to do a better job of communicating with citizens. Back in October of last year, I published an article called Open Letter to The Macon-Bibb Council and Mayor Reichert. In that article I offered them a platform to keep the people in Bibb informed about news and projects. I also explained my own difficulty receiving any responses from the Mayor or Commissioners over some questions I posed. I emailed every single one of the commissioners, and didn’t receive even one reply. I also pointed out in that article that the contact email listed on their website firstname.lastname@example.org results in a bounced email. I just checked it again today, and this is what I received:
Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently:
The error that the other server returned was:
550 5.1.1 <email@example.com> User unknown; rejecting
How pathetic that the main contact email for the Macon-Bibb government gets bounced. This needs to be fixed immediately. They also need to offer more surveys and solicit feedback from the public on big projects and other ideas. There are a lot of smart people with ideas outside of the Mayor’s tight circle, and they need to have their voices heard.
It is never easy to fire or lay people off, and I understand the difficulties involved. Bibb is a poor county, and only has a median household income of around $37,000, well below the state and national averages. We simply cannot afford to continue to have superfluous personnel and departments, nor pay administrators salaries far higher than what people working in the private sector make. We need the Mayor and commissioners to do their jobs, and make the necessary cuts and hard decisions. We do not want excuses why they can’t reach 20% in cuts over five years, because we know that it can be done if the will is there.
One purpose of this article has also been to remind the Mayor and Commissioners that the only considerations when choosing whom to let go should be based on job performance and the necessity of the job itself. Far too many have been hired and retained not based on their qualifications or performance, but based on who they know.
The Commissioners need to diligently, systematically examine each and every department in the entire county to determine which jobs are actually needed, and which were are simply redundant positions. They need to reward the high performers, and sack the ones that should have been fired long ago. They also need to work from the bottom up to address problems with salaries. People at or below the poverty level who are working for the county must be first in line for any raises, not administrators already making far higher than most in Bibb.
The process needs to be fair and transparent. I imagine many essential departments are probably understaffed as well. A full audit by unbiased people from the outside would help increase the employees in essential departments that need more staff, and reduce the staff of departments that probably shouldn’t even exist anymore.
Mandatory cuts of 20% over five years is attainable, but it will require some toughness and complete transparency. Attrition and retirements will not be enough, and in fact will not even be close to enough. I am not heartless, and I understand many Macon-Bibb employees are doing excellent work while arguably being underpaid for what they do. I hope this can be a gradual process so that released employees will have long enough periods of notice to plan for alternatives. Valuable employees who have performed well, but in unnecessary roles, should be first in line for any job openings in other departments.
All cost savings doesn’t all have to come from personnel cuts, but there is a limit to what can be achieved without them. Gwinnett County started making tough decisions in 2008 and by 2012 had lowered their budget about 8 percent from $1.55 billion in 2009 with an employee count of 4,707 to $1.43 billion in 2012 with an employee count of 4,801. That kind of restraint helped Gwinnett to secure a AAA rating from credit agencies appreciative of a fiscal house in order. We need our mayor and commissioners to have the same courage and determination. Given the need for somewhat higher cuts in Macon-Bibb, though, it appears that personnel reduction will have to be addressed as well. If our elected leaders are unable or unwilling to make those difficult decisions, they need to step aside for people who are up to the task.