A Better Way

Bill Neinast


In 1974 you, the federal taxpayers, paid for my matriculation in the 52nd Session of the Management Program for Executives of the Graduate School of Business, the University of Pittsburgh.  Among my classmates were executives of Westinghouse Electric, Otis Elevator, Gulf Oil, Boeing Aerosystems, Thai International Airlines, Trans-Arabian Pipeline, and many others.

In thumbing through my yearbook of that semester in Pittsburgh, I was reminded that I shared The Yul Brenner Tonsorial Award for having studied and implemented a cost-effective haircut program with Ike Eisenbrown of Cartech.

This trip down memory lane was prompted by last week’s session of the Washington County Commissioners’ Court.  Sitting through that two hour session of 28 agenda items led me to consider recommending the court to the Management Program as an example of how not to run a business.

County and city governments are, in effect, businesses with multi-million dollar budgets.  As such, they should be operated on sound business principles.

Unfortunately, there were no sound business principles on display in last week’s Commissioners’ Court meeting.  What shined brightly, however, was micro-management, the worst form of business.

Consider, for example, items 26 and 27 on the agenda.  They were the following: 

“26.  Discuss and act on the Sheriff’s request for step increases for three (3) administrative assistants.

“27.  Discuss and act upon the Sheriff’s request for a promotion of a Deputy to Sergeant.”

The first thought that comes to mind when reading those items is “Unbelievable!”  There is not an ounce of logic or business principle in having such items on an agenda of a Commissioners’ Court.

The County Sheriff is an elected official on the same level as the County Judge and Commissioners.  He is elected to provide safety and security for the county and to manage a large jail with an ever growing inmate population.  

Requiring him to come with hat in hand to request permission to promote a deputy to sergeant is like requiring the shift supervision on a Ford assembly line to get permission from the corporation’s board of directors to promote a fender installer to team leader.

Aggravating this already ridiculous agenda item was the ensuing argument by the commissioners that the promotion might result in three pay increases for the sergeant in three months.  

If funds allocated for personnel costs in the Sheriff’s office are adequate to cover the sergeant’s pay after three months, what difference does it make if the salary is raised to that level in three steps?  Why should the system or procedure the Sheriff uses to get the sergeant to that level be of concern to the commissioners?

Similarly, the discussion on item 27 concerning the pay for three administrative assistants was mind boggling.  The discussion seemed to be that all county administrative assistants should be compensated on the same basis.  In other words, an administrative assistant working in the austere environment of the jail in the area of in-processing sometimes drunk and violent prisoners should be compensated on the same basis as an administrative assistant renewing vehicle licenses in the open and pleasant court house. 

One commissioner’s suggestion for a solution to this “problem” was to hire a consultant to help the court set up a compensation policy or program.

There might be a better, tested, and cheaper solution.  Get the Commissioners’ Court—the county’s board of directors—out of the day-to-day operations of the county offices headed by elected officials.

The board of directors is, and should be, in control of the county budget.  That does not mean they have to approve every increase in the pay or level of individual employees.

The control is exercised through the normal budget process.  At the beginning of the budget year, office holders and the court negotiate and agree how much will be needed to pay employees in each office or operation for the year.  To whom that money will be paid and in what amounts should be the sole decision of the responsible office holder.  Normal, regular audits can insure that the personnel funds are not being misspent on elaborate banquets or some such.

So here’s the perspective.

Last week’s session of the Washington County Commissioners’ Court would have been an excellent seminar topic on how not to run a business for my Management Program for Executives. 


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