Shame on us
It might be deemed piling on, but the editorial above was written before Monday’s unprecedented county commission meeting.
Don’t lose track of just how unprecedented that meeting was. Officials from the county’s two largest cities first accused the county of overspending and overtaxing. Then, as if scripted for some bad reality show, a heated and unprofessional exchange erupted between a key target of their allegations and one of his bosses, the lone dissenter among commissioners.
It was, in a word, embarrassing. But let’s not get so caught up in emotions that we repeat the error that got us here in the first place.
Marion County has mismanaged its ambulance service for years. The current director seems to have a blank check to install a gold-plated service, as he did in his former job. Before him, the county tried to go cheap and elevate an unprepared worker into leadership after her predecessor was fired for alleged improprieties in personal conduct. It also went through an angry and protracted debate over whether to ban one of its few highly trained volunteer attendants. All this comes against a backdrop of long-standing but mainly whispered allegations that women are systematically discriminated against in ambulance hirings.
Ambulances became a mess because the county allowed the system to break in much the same way as it allowed its economic development system and its system of road maintenance to break. It then responded, as it did in those areas, with grandiose plans that attempted to play on taxpayer dissatisfaction as a way to justify massively increased spending.
It’s management by crisis — quite inefficient, especially in a county that prides itself on rat-holing huge amounts of taxpayer money. Rather use these sums to avoid or pay down debt and interest, commissioners seem to want to keep the funds liquid so they can undertake undisclosed major spending projects without having to seek approval from voters.
We’re tempted to think all of this would be fixed if we just hired a county administrator. To be sure, the county desperately needs professional management to prevent it from flitting from crisis to crisis, all the while focusing mainly on costly ways of keeping employees happy. Not only will we be spending on ambulances 2.6 times the average spent by 11 counties most similar to ours. We also will be spending the second highest amount on benefits for employees, who seem to get raises every few months, often regardless of merit.
An administrator would solve this only if that person received executive authority over all county departments except those led by elected officials.
We don’t need an administrator who will be yet another expensive minion sitting across the table from commissioners as they parade department heads before them. We need a professional manager — probably elected, possibly instead of a county clerk — to run things while commissioners set overall direction. They would deal only with this person, not with each subordinate and individual employee.
If we approve an administrator in the upcoming election, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get anything other than another costly but reluctant babysitter to join commissioners as they are scolded by employees in ways that would be immediate tickets to unemployment for workers anywhere else.
Bad as the tax burden in Marion County is, it’s not taxes that are scaring away development. It’s well-meaning but ill-prepared commissioners who aren’t up to the task. And those of us paying the bills are as much to blame for not caring until things break then blithely accepting massive overspending as if it were a solution.
- ERIC MEYER
Last modified Aug. 30, 2017