Editorial: This county needs help

SAY YOU’VE GOT $150 MILLION and you’re not sure how to handle it. You could spend it yourself or you could hire an expert to advise you. Or, option three, you could fork it over to a handful of amateurs who have at least two other day jobs, and let them keep an eye on it part-time.

Congratulations! If you are a taxpaying resident of Columbia County, you chose option three.

The county budget is $147 million this year, and the county Board of Supervisors, all of them public spirited people, don’t have the training or the time to properly manage your money and mine. They do the best they can, and they’ve managed surprisingly well, except for the missing $9 million from the Department of Social Services budget, which turned out to have disappeared because the county was never entitled to it in the first place. Do similar problems lurk in the dusty file cabinets of other county agencies?

The thought of the avoidable errors that could happen, let alone the ones that already have, led Roy Brown, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, to make a little-noticed pledge when he took over the gavel at the beginning of this year: He said the county should have a professional administrator running daily operations. This week he jump-started the process of hiring an administrator.

First question. Has he lost his mind? How can the county afford to hire a well-paid manager when we’re in the middle of what polite people call a recession?

Second question. Why has it taken this county so long to admit that we desperately need an expert administrator?

As for the first question, Mr. Brown is quite lucid and absolutely correct. If the taxpayers of Columbia County don’t hire a full-time, professional manager, we could go broke.

State law requires that the county Board of Supervisors retain overall responsibility for and control of all county operations and finances. So anyone worried about hiring a heavy-handed administrator should know that the board can overrule anything an appointed administrator does. And if voters don’t like the county’s choice of an unelected administrator, they can hold their supervisors accountable at the next election.

Mr. Brown has proposed creating the position of county administrator by adopting a law outlining the duties of the post and putting the salary in the budget. But the county does have another option. It can adopt a charter, a sort of local constitution that defines in broad terms the duties and responsibilities of county government and explains the role of the governing bodies. Adopting a charter requires a referendum—a majority of voters have to approve it.

A charter allows a county to choose to elect a county executive and to change from a board of supervisors to a directly elected county legislature. These are major changes in the way a county governs itself; county executives, for instance, have broad powers that can be greater than the power of the county legislature. And substituting a legislature for a board of supervisors introduces a whole new group of politicians who expect to be paid.

These options may be worth exploring at some point in the future, but agreeing on such profound changes in local government would undoubtedly take years, and the county needs better management now.

And that brings up that second question, the one about why the county waited so long to realize something has to change. Mr. Brown and others say the county leaders started talking about hiring an administrator 20 years ago, but it took Mr. Brown and his immediate predecessor, Art Baer, both of whom have some administrative experience, to realize just how vulnerable the county has become by its failure to adapt as times have changed. Don’t think of our situation as quaint or traditional; consider it for what it is—wasteful and fiscally irresponsible.

The subcommittee that Mr. Brown will now appoint to draft specific recommendations for a county administrator must remain open to the concerns of the public. The people have a right, for instance, to insist that supervisors impose reasonable limits on the commitment the county will makes to an administrator. But there is no need to debate whether the county needs full-time professional help. The chairman has done county taxpayers a great service by moving ahead so forcefully with this urgently needed plan. He deserves the support of the people who will benefit the most from his initiative—the taxpayers of this county.

 

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