The spectacle we are about to witness as the Macon-Bibb County Commission wrestles with the 2015-16 budget is a prime example of why governments can’t be run like a business. That is not to say governments should not be run like a business. But the models, while similar, are vastly different.
The business model is based on profit. It is imperative to keep expenses low and profits high. An executive of any sort who doesn’t make that happen is soon out of a job. The boards of directors governing the various businesses follow the same model and are constantly examining their products or services. Many executives also are beholden to Wall Street. Investors, while many times short-sighted and only focusing on the next quarterly returns, are still looking for the highest return on investment possible. While some will decry this arrangement, all parties know where they stand in the cycle of business -- even the employees.
Government, on the other hand, has a different model, driven by the need of the executives to remain in office. Their job is to gauge, rightly or wrongly, which way the wind is blowing, not just in fact but in opinion and perception, which bears more weight than facts.
Here are some facts. When the banking industry went through its era of mergers, acquisitions and failures, there were fewer employees in the end. At the end of 2010, according to USBankLocations.com, the top five banks -- Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, Bank of America and US Bank -- employed 752,000 people. At the end of 2014, that number dropped by 157,000.
In the telecommunications industry, Verizon dropped 18,000 employees between 2010 and 2013 and 59,000 since 2007. There are few industries that did not have reductions-in-force during the Great Recession. Even some governments shed employees, primarily school systems. Between 2001 and 2012, 7,800 teaching positions disappeared in Georgia.
This is where the two cultures of business and government collide. People pay for a businesses product or service. If they want that service or product, they will continue to pay for it, even if the price rises slightly -- though a tipping point easily can be reached. The same is true of government services. However, while we can all agree that we all need public safety and garbage pickup, there is little consensus on other government services. Here’s the rub. If we don’t use a service, we quickly label it as unnecessary, even if a majority of the residents do use it.
So in comes the budget. Projected revenues are outstripped by expenses and talk of tax increases appears. All of the alternatives, as Mayor Robert Reichert put it at a recent commission work session, are bad. Employees make up the vast majority of the county’s expenses -- and many of those employees can’t be touched because they work in public safety or the courts.
The very meaning of consolidation should have given employees of the city and county a clue. No matter what the promises, you can’t squeeze blood from a pecan. There was a time in business where attractive severance packages cushioned the fall. For all but the highfalutin, those days are long gone.
There is discussion of severance packages to encourage county employees to leave. If that happens, those who can take the offer and retire should. Those who can go off and do something else should do the same. It is better to leave on your own terms than to end up standing in line at the Department of Labor wondering what train hit you.