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County office snips bureaucratic strings


Dorothy McGuinness thought she would spend the rest of her career a county employee, heading a department that helped out-of-work people find jobs.

But nine months ago, County Executive Robert R. Neall proposed severing the Office of Manpower and letting it fend for itself as a private nonprofit corporation.

Ms. McGuinness said she agreed to let her department be the pilot program for privatization, and in June she embarked on a six-month odyssey to cut the bureaucratic umbilical cord.

"I had a recurring dream that I was on a train and I came to a juncture that led the train to a different track," said Ms. McGuinness, president of the new company. "My job was to keep the train moving while simultaneously changing all of the cars, including the engine. It was quite a journey."

In January, the county Office of Manpower became the Business and Workforce Development Center, a $3.5 million nonprofit corporation that Ms. McGuinness said will now be able to expand and provide services not allowed under county rule.

The center will host a reception this evening to formally open the facility, which in reality has never closed its doors.

Ms. McGuinness said her staff of about 30 workers made a sometimes chaotic transition from public to private without neglecting clients who needed to use the services.

The office, located in Severna Park, continues to provide job training and educational services to 2,000 unemployed county residents. It also administers more than 20 federal and state-funded job training programs, from construction to clerical to child care.

The switch has won praise from Mr. Neall, who has made privatization a centerpiece of his plan to downsize government. "I think those citizens who use the center will notice only changes for the better," he said in a prepared statement.

Anne Arundel County has three other privatization projects in the works: the London Town Publik House and Gardens in Edgewater, the Office of Economic Development and the Commission on Culture and the Arts.

Ms. McGuinness said she had a mixed reaction when she first heard of Mr. Neall's plans. But after several days, "I said, 'Let's give this a whirl.' "

With only six months to make the switch, the project seemed daunting. "I didn't think it could be done," Ms. McGuinness said.

While a county agency, much of the detail work was taken care of. There was a personnel office for hiring, a budget office for the finances and a purchasing office to buy things. "It is a difficult umbilical to cut," she said.

Ms. McGuinness said her employees had to learn new skills, while at the same time not shortchanging clients. "I couldn't say to somebody who had just been laid off to come back in six months because we were in the middle of privatizing," she said.

But she said it may have been easier for her department to break away because most of the funding came from grants -- money that still flows in from the county, state and federal government.

Some tasks, however, are easier. Now when Ms. McGuinness wants to buy a piece of office furniture, for example, she doesn't have to fill out a myriad forms. And when a client needs a stipend for a bus ticket to get to the office, the money can easily be handed out.

It also means expansion can come easier. While a county agency, only clients facing economic hardship could take advantage of the training programs, counseling services or the computers and telephones to update resumes and set up job interviews.

Ms. McGuinness said she is considering allowing people who wouldn't otherwise fit the county client profile to use the programs for a fee. "It really is a good investment in human capital," Ms. McGuinness said. "I do want to expand it."

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