OEDEL: Pare sooner, not later

October 20, 2013 

Initially, some envisioned a prospective Macon-Bibb as a political Frankenstein that would be stitched together unnaturally across race and class lines and zapped into life by a gang of evil masterminds. But that scary caricature lost some of its force when a healthy majority of citizens in both the city and county voted to consolidate the governments and reduce the combined cost by 20 percent.

Now our citizens have successfully selected an impressive representative roster of 10 charter leaders, and consolidation’s promise is taking shape.

Let’s keep that shape trim.

As our newly elected leaders begin, they’ll be tempted to see the first order of business as seamlessly to merge the new departments of the two governments; smooth out rough edges in the transition by being generous on retention, pay, benefits and service commitments; and kick the can down the road on consolidation’s legal mandate in Section 23 to reduce the cost of the consolidated government by 20 percent within five years.

That could prove to be a serious error for both the consolidated government and the political fortunes of each of the new leaders. If tough decisions on downsizing are deferred in favor of an easy transition now, three bad things could happen.

First, any apparent “generosity” with public money now to smooth wrinkles in transition will make downsizing harder later. For instance, if, in merging personnel of companion departments, we retain all personnel while picking the highest scale of pay and benefits that preexisted in either department, the costs of the merged department will be greater than the costs of the preexisting departments added together. That’s going the wrong way.

Second, if the leaders make commitments now in the interests of a smooth transition, it will be hard for the leaders later to unwind those commitments when it comes time to find the 20 percent.

Third, if and when the leaders finally get serious about looking for the 20 percent savings, it could well be election time again. Then, tough choices will have to be made in the teeth of an election, and voter wrath could rain down for a number of predictable reasons -- failure to make the 20 percent cut as required, late-breaking service cuts, broken promises, lack of foresight, the appearance of incompetence and spinelessness, poor stewardship, etc.

My suggestion: identify and plan for 20 percent in cuts sooner rather than later.

The first way to facilitate streamlining during transition is for the new leaders to seek immediate counsel from the sitting leaders in the separate governments, and ask for their advice and cooperation in identifying ways in transition to cut expenses while retaining and being fair to individuals, and conscious of value to the public.

Second, we should encourage the blue ribbon consolidation transition commission’s subcommittees to make concrete reduction recommendations in their respective areas of facilities, finance, human resources, laws and technology. Each subcommittee might be reminded that they have an obligation to anticipate the legal requirement of a combined government that will be one-fifth smaller. Like the Simpson-Bowles Commission, they should be expected publicly to detail their own recommendations for 20 percent in cuts in each zone.

People were chosen for the transition committees because they were viewed as capable of standing firm for public interests like Section 23’s requirement of 20 percent in downsizing. The time for them to acquit that part of their charge is now, before their roles end. Rather than postpone and therefore practically punt such questions, they need to help the newly-elected leaders by shouldering some of the burden and identifying plausible, responsible cuts, however politically awkward.

The third job is for the new leaders alone -- a job that they all well understood before running for their seats. They must anticipate and achieve with grace the hardest charge for the new government: economizing, streamlining, downsizing. Twenty percent worth. It will be painful anytime, but less painful in transition than later.

Take the heat now. Enjoy rewards later.

David Oedel has counseled government officials of both parties at the local, state and national levels. He teaches law at Mercer University Law School.

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