Here comes the boss?

County leaders see tax relief with county manager

HUDSON — Columbia County needs somebody to deal with its $150 million budget, its 1,000 employees, the 300 retirees it supports, its 28 operating departments and the 4 unions it negotiates with on a full-time basis.

It needs a county manager and that person won’t come cheap.

The recommendation that the county hire a manager came from the County Manager Initiative Subcommittee, which was assigned by county Board of Supervisors Chairman Roy Brown (R-Germantown) to figure out how “focused professional management” can improve efficiency in county services, reduce costs and taxes and promote the interests of people who live here.

The subcommittee brought its recommendation in the form of a 36-page report, titled The Case for a County Manager, to the committee last week. The report is now posted on the county website. www.columbiacountyny.com.

The subcommittee, made up of five members of the County Board of Supervisors (BOS), including Mr. Brown, plus three community members, the county attorney and the county human resources director, has been working on its assignment since last September. It met 14 times, conducted surveys of all BOS members and county department heads, consulted with officials from the state and other counties, as well as academics to determine how best to “meet present day challenges.”

Supervisor Art Bassin (D-Ancram), who served on the subcommittee, said Tuesday that the research “led to the conclusion that this county is not well managed.” Twenty-three part-time town supervisors are trying to run an enterprise with a $150 million annual budget and “it’s not being done very well,” he said.

Many supervisors must balance regular day jobs as well as town and county business, and they don’t “have time to manage the complex programs, processes and priorities facing the county… decisions take too long to make, and when made, take too long to implement, costing the county millions of dollars in lost opportunities,” according to the report, which also found that Columbia County has the highest per capita tax levy of the 20 counties most similar to it in population size.

Supervisor Bassin mentioned at a recent Town Board meeting that Columbia County has the fourth highest per capita property tax in the state, with only Westchester, Hamilton and Nassau counties being higher.

The connection between management and higher taxes is the hypothesis that better managers and leaders will result in lower costs and higher revenues which translate to a lower tax levy, said Mr. Bassin.

According to the report, a county manager would serve at the pleasure of the Board of Supervisors (BOS), and benefit the county by providing a timelier, more accurate and standardized financial and operational information flow to the BOS, which would then be able to make more timely and informed decisions.

A manager would oversee department operations and the implementation by department heads of BOS priorities to get things done faster, while providing consistent support and supervision to department heads so they can better meet the goals and standards set for their departments by the BOS.

Because a county manager would not be subject to the election cycle every two or four years, he or she could provide continuity and stability of leadership and management, the report said.

Subcommittee member Ed Herrington, president and part-owner of Ed Herrington, Inc., a building materials business that has been around for 100 years, said Wednesday that there is some urgency to get a manager hired in light of the recently passed property tax cap legislation, the burden of which “may fall heavy on the county and towns.” Someone is needed to set priorities and help department heads with implementation and coordinate the whole system, he said.

But, the hiring of a person that can do all the things a manager needs to do will be “tricky,” he said, noting this person “must have managerial skills, yet be politically savvy, a skill set that does not show up in the same person by definition. It will be a special hire. You can’t take politics out of it, it’s part of the gig.”

The prospect of a county manager is scary for some, Mr. Herrington said, noting, “if you have a good manager, department heads will be much more effective, it will make their lives better, that’s what a good boss does.”

Mr. Brown said this week that he brought up the idea in the first place, shortly after he became chairman of the board in January 2010 and did some research into professional management and county governance. He presented his findings to the County Government Committee and asked for permission to form a committee to look into the manager idea last summer.

Though some of his fellow supervisors oppose creating another full-time county government position, he hasn’t heard anyone oppose having the county run by a full-time manager.

The cost to hire a professional county manager is about $150,000, according to the report, though a specific benefits package is something that will have to be negotiated once a suitable person is found. Mr. Brown said $75,000 for a county manager is in the current county budget and that the full salary would have to be allocated in next year’s budget.

It is speculation to say exactly how much of a financial return the county could expect with the hiring of a manager, and Mr. Brown said he expected it to take years before better management yields savings. He said that hiring  a county manager is “a long term strategy.”

Mr. Bassin said if the board agrees that a county manager is the way to go, a hiring decision would likely not take place until sometime during the first quarter of next year. The report recommends that a manager be hired before the end of this year.

Mr. Bassin, who is also in favor of hiring a manager, said, “My business career taught me that management matters, without it we do not have the opportunity to be as good as we can be.” As for the timing of putting the manager issue to a vote before the November election, Mr. Bassin said it is perfectly appropriate to vote before the election so the public can see how their candidates voted.

To wait till after the election might mean an influx of new people not aware of the issues, “waiting for them to get up to speed might take another two years. If we keep deferring, nothing ever gets done, which is one of the problems we have at the county.”

To contact Diane Valden email

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