The Palm Beach County Commission on Tuesday decided to schedule a workshop to study the recommendation of a consultant who suggested outsourcing 696 county jobs at an estimated savings of $12 million a year.
County Administrator Bob Weisman said the recommendation of the consultant to privatize large operational portions of county government required direction from the commission quickly.
“There are obviously a large number of employees affected by that,” he said. “We thought we needed a response on that immediately.”
Weisman said the findings of the report are a way to make the county more efficient, strictly under the definition of the term.
“The consultant believes that if you privatize these operations, contractors will compensate the employees less and that will reduce the county’s cost,” he said. “I think whether you look at government privatization or business privatization, one does not privatize core operations that you routinely depend on for public services.”
Weisman said the best example of that is Palm Tran Connections, where privatization was recommended from the start and the commission has been dealing with issues concerning it for years, including competitive bidders who say they will pay employees less and questions about whether they will be able to sustain the lower salaries.
Weisman also pointed out that the county has already privatized significant portions of county services, including Head Start food service because the vendor could deliver more consistent food quality, and a proposal is being prepared to provide fleet maintenance for park vehicles.
But, he said, during emergencies such as hurricanes, there is a comfort level in having one’s own staff.
Weisman said there is merit in other recommendations, such as automation of interviews for the Victim Services Department.
“There was one interesting part about how we deal with the process of Victim Services of when they are doing the interview process with the victims… and ways of reducing the time it takes to handle those cases,” Weisman said. “We don’t understand how that works, but we’re going to pursue that with the consultant and see what we can find.”
Weisman also pointed out that the county has cut the cost of government by almost $100 million over the past seven years.
“We’ve cut our staff by almost 1,000 employees over that period of time,” he said. “From that perspective, we will continue to look at what these consultants have given us in terms of improvement, as well as what we can do ourselves. The original cuts came from within, and we have made this work from our own management capabilities and dedication of management and staff to make this happen.”
Weisman urged the commission to receive and file the report and allow staff to evaluate the aspects that don’t pertain to privatization, and not to approve the privatization proposal, thereby sending a clear message to county employees that their jobs will continue.
Consultant Ron Adler with the accounting firm Gerstle, Rosen & Goldenberg said he has been all over the United States and that Palm Beach County does things really well.
“Palm Beach County, like all the other counties across the United States, has hit the same problem and it’s because of the reduction in their ad valorem income, that they have to make adjustments in their operating expenses,” Adler said. “Expenses, unfortunately, for the most part involve reductions in their personnel or redeployment of their personnel. The concern is that you have relationships with people, and you don’t want to see them displaced.”
He said his report was not about what the county and staff must do, but areas they might want to look at, including operating efficiencies, outsourcing, staff reductions and opportunities for additional revenues such as advertising on county media.
Operating efficiencies could include a central information technology system combining independently operating systems of several departments, and incorporating voice recognition software to reduce the need for manual word processing.
Commissioner Paulette Burdick applauded the study as a way to improve trust in government and provide opportunities to improve performance through measurable objectives. She suggested additional time to work on the recommendations and for the consultant to provide some more specific measurable performance objectives.
Commissioner Karen Marcus agreed that more time is needed.
Commissioner Burt Aaronson said he would participate in a workshop but did not need a consultant to tell him they can raise prices for services, put advertising on Channel 20 or tell the sheriff to make use of the county computer rather than operate his own.
“I want to have a workshop, but I don’t need a consultant to tell me we can lay-off 696 people and save $12 million,” he said, explaining that the commission could tell Weisman to reduce staff by 696 people and he would do it.
Commissioner Priscilla Taylor said she did not favor outsourcing, having worked for a Fortune 500 company that went downhill after it turned to outsourcing. She wants to reduce waste without affecting what has made Palm Beach County a great place to live. “I don’t want to do something opposite of what we are trying to achieve,” she said.
Taylor added that some of the constitutional offices have separate departments and technology that are redundant. “Maybe we should not give them money for services we provide,” she said. “We are all one county, no matter how they look at themselves.”
Commissioner Jess Santamaria said he has been in business 38 years. “I have tried outsourcing twice, most recently four or five years ago,” he said. “I had to come back and rehire employees, and I’m no longer outsourcing. I was disappointed the two times I outsourced.”
He added that he has great confidence in the county staff. “I have no doubt in my mind that employees in Palm Beach County are second to none,” Santamaria said.
He also reiterated that the county has already cut the budget by more than $100 million. “We have been slowly but surely improving efficiency,” he said. “We should listen to our consultants but look at areas we have improved. We can do it with existing staff. With brainpower we have, we can keep on improving.”
Marcus made a motion to receive and file the consultant’s report and to schedule a workshop for June for further discussion. The motion carried unanimously.
The board also agreed to discuss with constitutional officers the feasibility of participating with the county for central services.