Dear Editor:

Is it possible for county government to heal its chronic waste and ineffectiveness problems? Some would say no, but we might be on the verge of solving one or two.

Here’s one. The county is required by law to have a “balanced budget,” which we technically have. But to keep it “balanced,” we are spending down reserves by over a million dollars this year alone. As we did last year, and many years before, and next year, if we don’t do something very different. Right now, we have maybe two years of reserves and fund balances left at this rate of overspending. Then we are broke. I voted against the last county budget because it denied and delayed this huge problem.

Simply put, we have falsely claimed “success” by measuring the wrong thing. By asking the wrong questions. The county asks the meaningless, “Is the budget balanced?,” instead of something real like, “Are we spending only what we bring in?”

I’m happy to tell you that after three years, this simple message finally stuck. 2014 will be the first time in memory that we will spend only what we earn. Revenue and expense, in balance. This seems obvious out here in the real world, but it will be a huge improvement in how the government thinks about and spends your money. It has taken longer than I would have liked, but I have some hope that I will be able to vote for truly balanced county finances this year.

Here’s a second one. If we can get a handle on our irresponsible spending, can we also improve our effectiveness? Sure. Just do two simple things at first. Measure it, and reward the people who do better. That’s right, if we had the collective political will to finish installing internal controls, measure real performance, and reward excellence (instead of attendance), we could be 20 percent more effective right now. In our current budget, that’s roughly $2 million dollars a year. That savings is equal to four times the sales tax that Wal-Mart will bring in. What might we spend some of those saving on? Roads?

The commonplace idea of measuring real-world performance is so foreign it even sounds weird when applied to government. We started toward this last year. We simply need to get going on it again.

Some will say it is “more complicated than that,” but it is not. Spend within your means and measure your effectiveness, then you can reward excellence. This is the first responsibility of leadership, management, and elected officials. We can do this.

Michael Whiting

This story was posted on August 22, 2013.