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Suffolk Closeup: Ask those who really know about waste
With Suffolk County government hard-pressed financially, Suffolk Legislator Tom Climi held a hearing for county employees recently to suggest ways the county could save money.
“One of the most remarkable things that came out of this,” commented Mr. Climi afterwards, “is that our employees were thrilled to be asked for their opinions …. Given the number and variety of suggestions we received, I think there’s a great lesson to be learned by leaders throughout government: there’s a bottomless well of ideas in the workforce if we just take the time to ask and to listen.”
He put together a report, “Working Smarter in Suffolk County: A Compilation of Employee Suggestions,” and sent it to County Executive Steve Bellone. In his cover letter, he said there may be “some diamonds in the rough” among the suggestions and “we can use all the help we can get.”
Some are no-brainers and clearly should be adopted. Others raise bigger issues.
One idea was: “Stop paying insurance benefits for no-show jobs.” A fine recommendation but the bigger issue: Why are there any “no-show jobs” in Suffolk government, period, and why is the taxpayer spending a penny for them?
Then there was: “Reduce number of upper management positions.” This might just involve employees grumbling about too many bosses. But it could expose Suffolk government as being — like so many bureaucracies — top-heavy with unnecessary upper management positions. Having an independent analysis might be a good idea. It would cost money but, considering the high salaries involved, it could save money many times over by allowing for some of the jobs to be eliminated.
“Turn off lights and computers when not in use”: This is among the no-brainers and one must ask, if this isn’t being done now, why not?
“Create a collections department for uncollected fines and fees”: This is a worthwhile suggestion if the money brought in significantly exceeds the cost of such a new department.
“Eliminate some patronage positions”: Suffolk’s first county executive, H. Lee Dennison, elected in the wake of the “Suffolk Scandals” of the 1950s, worked tirelessly during his 12 years (1961-1973) at taking the politics out of hiring by making Civil Service rules the basis for Suffolk government employment. His few aides were hired on merit, never patronage. Originally a Republican, he ran on the Democratic line, but was quite the independent. A full return to the Dennison way would be refreshing.
“Hire drivers and use county vans to replace cabs — cab fare for homeless [mainly to get them between shelters and Department of Social Services centers] is close to $1 million annually”: Here’s some information coming from employees with knowledge of what sounds like a dubious use of taxis.
“Increase the cost for traffic violations — such as texting while driving — and/or increase enforcement”: Texting while driving and using handheld cellphones while driving have become major causes of traffic accidents. Hitting violators with big fines would not only raise more money but work to save lives.
“Eliminate color printers”: A fine suggestion considering the high cost of ink for color printers and the negligible need for Suffolk government to have reports and documents in color.
“Use the federal court building next to the Cohalan Courthouse for county offices — it is currently half-empty”: It’s intriguing news that the 12-story Alfonse D’Amato United States Courthouse, named for the senator-turned-lobbyist, lauded when it was opened in 2000 for its impressive architecture, is half-empty.
Why was such a large structure built? According to the website of the United States District Court, Eastern District of New York, it’s “the second largest courthouse in the country and the largest structure on Long Island.” It sure would be sensible for some of its vacant space to be used by the county. The state utilizes some space, says the website. Suffolk’s adjacent Cohalan Court Complex is fully occupied.
Gathering suggestions from employees might be a good idea on the federal level, too. A great book on federal government waste is “The Government Racket: Washington Waste from A to Z” by Martin L. Gross. A bestseller when published 20 years ago, the book’s author today says the waste has since gotten worse.