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As Long as We Remember...

October 21, 2008

Walking The Economic Line

Farrell Keough

Times are tight and even the government is recognizing the need to cut back – or at least, appear as if they are making budget cuts.


An interesting set of proposals are emanating from the O’Malley Administration in conjunction with Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot. While it is likely these proposals will change, some oddities deserve attention.


For instance, numerous positions which have been vacant for quite some time are not being filled. As this money was only allocated and not actually spent, it is difficult to call this a savings. Also, a number of agencies are getting reductions in their budget increases. In other words, rather than increasing the budget by 5%, they may only be getting a 3% increase. This is still an increase. While there may be some type of justification for the funds needed, it is still an increase during this time of such financial regress.


Finally, while many of the supposed savings come from cuts to the Health Department – which comprises the largest State expenditures – very few significant cuts are being made to the Maryland Department of Education. This department has a huge listing of employees – few of which are directly involved in teaching. Yet none of these excessive positions are being reviewed for cuts. While no one wants to lose their job. That is a truth of difficult economic times, and it is highly dubious that many of these positions can be justified.


This brings us to our local economic woes.  As pointed out by Commissioner Charles Jenkins, Frederick County is facing serious times. Funding mechanisms such as recordation fees have dried up – due to the moratorium and difficult economic times. Mr. Jenkins suggested an across the board hiring freeze. It is important to realize where this suggestion arose.


During the October 14th Commissioners’ worksession, the position of Sustainability Director came up. This position was originally proposed in May of this year and again in August. A Sustainability Commission composed of citizens and overseen by this director was approved by a 3-2 vote – Commissioners Jenkins and John L. “Lennie” Thompson voted against the formation of both this commission and the director position.


One reason for opposing both was stated quite succinctly by Commissioner Thompson: “The Board of County Commissioners is the Sustainability Commission.”


This proposition carries a great deal of truth. The most significant reason being that the term “sustainability” has a tremendously broad definition. So much so, that during that meeting, when a proposal was made to describe this commission, it was requested that the definition be broadened.


In short, Commissioner David Gray presented a resolution outlining a possible composition and appointment of the citizens to this commission. This resolution involved focusing the commission on recycling and reuse issues. Commissioner Jan Gardner noted that “sustainability” involves far more issues and the definition should be broadened.


In other words, involving the term “sustainability” within the name of both this commission and the new director opens up a Pandora’s Box of influence and possible oversight.


The Director of Sustainability position has already undergone the interview process with somewhere around 20 or more people applying. While this position will initially be under the oversight of the Office of County Manager, consider the implications of such an open-ended position and commission.


A person of ambition could quickly parley this position into something with greater and greater oversight. Virtually all county activities involve sustainability. Hence, this position opens the pathway for a Sustainability Czar – a term most commonly used by Washington politicians to give one person tremendous authority over many agencies and people.


In short, not only is this Board of County Commissioners looking to increase our government yet again, but it is doing so at a time when contraction of government is necessary rather than expansion – especially when the position is one having such great potential for further expansion and influence.


One would suppose this is enough for one meeting, but no. Yet another expenditure was approved.


A private citizen named Steve Cassis has prepared a report or “cobbled together” a document of ideas for handling the waste stream in Frederick County as an opposition to the Waster-To-Energy (WTE) plant currently being reviewed and delayed. Mr. Cassis has indicated this document was developed in concert with many, many other individuals having various levels and areas of expertise.


But, Mr. Cassis would not reveal who any of these individuals are. In short, we are paying for an outside contractor to review these alternatives because one citizen requested it and a minority of vocal citizens pressured the commissioners to spend the money.


This proposal from Mr. Cassis was presented to the Solid Waste Advisory Committee (SWAC). SWAC found the document interesting, but lacking in specifics and hence difficult, if not impossible, to thoroughly review. SWAC recommended that Michael Marschner, the county’s director of Solid Waste Management, review the document.  When the commissioners proposed an outside contractor review this document, Mr. Marschner correctly noted that this would be a duplication of work and cost.


It was also noted that Commissioner Kai Hagen would finally be giving his presentation of alternatives to the WTE on November 6th. He has been discussing his issues with the “process” of moving forward with this WTE since April, 2007. This presentation has been delayed at least three times and numerous months.


To mitigate the vocal minority against this WTE, it was determined by the commissioners that an outside consultant would be hired to review both Mr. Cassis’s document and Commissioner Hagen’s presentation as either alternatives to WTE, or for further integration into our counties efforts to deal with waste.


Two important factors should be noted about this additional expenditure. One, many of the proposals are either already taking place in Frederick County or efforts are ongoing to develop them. And second, the precedent being set is, if a private citizen can “cobble together” a document in opposition of a commissioners’ proposal, that citizen has the right and possible opportunity to force the taxpayers and the commissioners to pay for review of that document.


Consider not only the cost, but the delays that can be accomplished by setting this new pattern. It should be noted that both Commissioners Thompson and Jenkins were opposed to this proposal.


It is often the case that the most vocal obtain more from our representatives. At this point, our taxes will go to pay for these vocal opponents and the outcome may not have any more value than what is occurring currently.


Of course, Commissioner Hagen may have information in his presentation which alters the direction of our waste stream. If that is the case, then spending the money on his presentation will be worth the expense. Having seen early presentations by Mr. Cassis, I am dubious that his “cobbled together” work will generate a worthwhile outcome.


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