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Front Page » Opinion » A New Mayor Must Assess County Staffing Pay And Efficacy

A New Mayor Must Assess County Staffing Pay And Efficacy

Written by on January 6, 2011

By Michael Lewis
As Miami-Dade commissioners tiptoe through a minefield of recall elections, we need to step quickly past political maneuvers and focus on salutary long-term impact.

Mayor Carlos Alvarez is likely to be deposed before his term ends. His replacement will be the first mayor to manage from day one county staff and services.

That’s the key legacy of the strong-mayor system Mr. Alvarez pushed into the charter. It means the county mayor is not only political leader and spokesperson but also administrator, two vastly different and — before Mr. Alvarez — separate jobs.

In that administrative role, a mayor should assess the number, pay levels and efficacy of staff and determine how to save the most money with least impact on vital services.

Assessment is far harder than it should be, given that the current mayor’s chief aide, County Manager George Burgess, is a superb manipulator of data to serve an agenda.

Today, two outside perceptions of county staffing conflict. One is of a bureaucracy growing far faster than private enterprise, needing cutting in great swaths. The other is of a staff decimated yearly by budget trims.

Facts cast doubt on both perceptions.

Decimation didn’t occur. The county’s last budget cut 941 positions, but in a staff where people in eliminated jobs are rapidly shuffled to vacant or new posts, far fewer than 941 lost jobs.

On the other hand, jobs in local government countywide contracted with the economy. As the big local government, Miami-Dade County is key.

In fact, government employee growth in Miami-Dade closely parallels that of the county economy as a whole.

In the past 20 years, November 1990 to November 2010, governments in the county grew from 124,400 filled jobs to 154,500, up 24.2%. At the same time, employment countywide grew from 899,629 jobs to 1,124,451, up 25%.

Job growth in private and public sectors is comparable. It’s vital to isolate how county government fits into that pattern.

How about job decline in the downturn?

Government jobs countywide peaked at 158,500 in December 2007 and since have fallen 4,000, or 2.5%. But countywide employment peaked at 1,149,020 in November 2007 and since has fallen 24,569 jobs, 2.1%. Again, comparable.

So public sector jobs have risen and fallen right in line with the private sector.

But how about pay? After all, Mayor Alvarez gave out double-digit raises to confidants amidst a recession and county hall paychecks rose.

It’s difficult to track county pay figures and even harder to be confident of them, given recent manipulation when tax bills rose in double digits in what the mayor and manager touted as a no-tax-increase budget.

But nationally in 2010, pay in government rose more slowly than in business, a shock given pay cuts in many companies.

Government jobs do average higher pay than similar roles in business, but the gap narrowed a hair in 2010, a reverse from private years. In the third quarter, state and local employees’ wages and benefits in the US rose 1.7% for a year while those in private industries rose 2%.

A new mayor should demand hard data on whether county government pay growth exceeds the national 1.7%.

Far more important to assess than pay levels is productivity. Maintaining ratios between county and private jobs means little if county employment was too high or unproductive to begin with.

No figures detail how much work county employees do or how well they do it, though people who go to county offices tell of clerks seeming to do little but chat as the public waits.

Would we find the same in a business as employers seek to trim expenses? It’s doubtful.

The most appalling account, however, comes not from Miami-Dade but from France’s regional government system, where one Aurélie Boullet landed a dream job after six years of college.

For a fulltime wage, she recounted recently, her actual work was five to 12 hours per month, much unrelated to state business. She was given one week’s pay to change the typeface of a computerized report, a job that took 25 seconds. End of a week’s work.

Ms. Boullet went public with the misuse of tax money in a system where non-jobs are the norm, not the exception.

Miami-Dade’s new mayor, as administrator, may not find similar waste but must study with an open mind whether the public gets its money’s worth.

Such efficiencies, vital now, shouldn’t end with an economic upturn, because the county, like all local governments, faces rising liabilities from pensions, retiree healthcare and long-term debt that include $3 billion for a baseball stadium Mayor Alvarez pushed through as he raised staff wages.

The rising-liability chickens won’t come home to roost for Mr. Alvarez even should he manage to avert a recall. But they will bedevil taxpayers of the future.

A mayor, as both county leader and administrator, must come to grips with those future liabilities. A good start is to probe staffing, pay and efficacy.

The mayor mightn’t find a payroll full of Aurélie Boullet jobs, but a look at the close associates of Mayor Alvarez would be a valid start.

Government jobs shouldn’t be sinecures. After a recall, look closely at key employees, salute the best and can the rest.

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