There is a truism that applies to most efforts to consolidate governments: Initial costs will exceed previous budgets. The savings taxpayers expect (generally because of overpromising by proponents of consolidations) are in the long term. It’s not easy to consolidate governments. When private corporations merge, they have a set of goals that are known up front, and the prime directive is to reduce cost and send more money to the bottom line. According to the Wall Street Journal, Pfizer Inc. has eliminated more than 56,000 jobs since 2005. The company bought Wyeth in 2009 and “closed six of 20 research sites worldwide.” In telecommunications and other industries, mergers have also led to thousands of layoffs.
While it’s often said that governments should be run like businesses, that’s nearly impossible. While there are aspects of private business that can be emulated by governments, when it comes to layoffs, it’s a different story. For example, if the Macon-Bibb County Commission announced that it would have to lay off a couple of hundred people to make the required 5 percent budget reduction, they would be committing political harakiri. Unlike a business, the laid-off employees have a vote, and while everyone wants to reduce the cost of government, no one wants to be on the business end of the samurai’s sword.
It is also a misnomer that government employees are expendable. Take Public Works. What would citizens’ response be if the county decided to pick up garbage once every two weeks to save $500,000 (just an example)?
What Commissioner Bert Bivins didn’t specify when he stated that meeting the required cuts would mean layoffs is that public safety would have to take some cuts, too, even though there is a loophole in the legislation. The Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department are the only places where significant savings can be found. Is that a direction we want to go?
The commission is right to explore all the options -- from asking the state delegation for changes in the consolidation legislation -- to a tax referendum. It is disconcerting to know the consolidation bill may have a drafting error worth millions of dollars in the baseline computation of the required reduction. At the very least, that must be fixed.