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.


County opens towns’ books

PICK A NUMBER, any number–one you might have wondered about, like, say: How much does my town supervisor make? But what would that figure tell you without knowing the salaries of other supervisors?

If you were really curious, you could drive to other towns and pore over the pages of each towns’ budget to find what you were looking for. Or you could finish doing the dishes and forget about the whole thing, because life’s short. Read more…

What’s for dinner?

PINCHING OFF THE WITHERED, yellow branches of our tomato plants this week reminded me what it means to exist at the far end of the food chain, completely dependent on what’s for sale instead of what’s growing, grazing or swimming nearby. It hardly matters whether the tomatoes are suffering from the heat, late blight or my clueless neglect. If I had to survive on what I could grow, my genes and I would have exited the pool a long time ago.

This is still farm country, but not long ago the trends were troubling. In Columbia County the number of farms was dwindling, while factory farming in other states–dairy herds of 6,000 cows–promised cheap produce with the manufactured consistency that many Americans have come to accept as quality food. Read more…

What kind of dog is that?

WE DON’T HAVE AN OFFICIAL MASCOT at this newspaper, although there was never any doubt about what animal would have been first in line for the job had the post become available. A smooth hair fox terrier named Hopper, my dog, has been coming to work with me for 11 years. He died last week of natural causes.

Most of his newspaper years were spent at The Independent, the now-defunct, twice-weekly county newspaper headquartered in Hillsdale. I first arrived there for my orientation on a chilly evening in November 2000. After about an hour I told the late Vicki Simons, co-owner of the paper, that my “editorial assistant” was waiting for me in the car. She looked taken aback and insisted I invite him in. I’m not sure she was amused when I returned with Hopper, but as a dog owner herself, she took it in stride. Good thing. Read more…

What can you do with kids today?

HIS FADED JEANS hung halfway between his waist and knees and yet his t-shirt hadn’t pulled loose from his pants, a phenomenon I attributed to Superglue or some strange martial art. He swayed side to side as he walked up the street–a reasonable thing to do if you’re trying to hold up your pants with your thighs and move forward at the same time. He was so cool for Columbia County and so unaware his outfit was a couple of years behind the fashion curve.

The antidote I use to prevent myself from condemning him and the other clueless, reckless good-for-nothing youth of today is to imagine bellbottom pants. Bellbottoms and long hair retain their charm on the animated Beatles in the Yellow Submarine movie, but boy did they provoke hostile stares among the geezers and conventional folks 40 or more years ago. That, naturally, was the point, and memories of my own clueless behavior now fill me with dread, tempered by recollections of the pleasure derived from making all that mischief. Those same memories help put complaints about contemporary teenage behavior in perspective. Read more…