Inside Baltimore County government, good ideas are reaping more than just good will.
For 104 employees, they're being transformed into dollars and cents -- under a new county program that pays for the power of ideas.
In the Gainsharing program, ground-level employees who devise ways to save cash -- without cutting back on county services -- pocket half of the money saved.
This week, the first batch of checks went out -- $14,396 to employees from two departments, and an equal amount to the county's general fund.
In the dietary division of the Bureau of Corrections, 13 workers split $6,500, or $500 each, for carving the costs of feeding inmates.
Some inmates at the county's detention center even lent a hand -- serving as taste-testers while employees considered changing from name brands to generic.
"The last thing we want to do is cause a problem at the detention center because of food," said county Chief Financial Officer Stephen Kirchner, who is overseeing the Gainsharing program. "They don't want to use a generic product that doesn't taste good."
Workers found three ways to cut $13,000 -- without drawing heaps of protest from inmates.
Besides shifting to generic brands, they switched recipe systems -- to one used in the armed forces, which calls for exact measurements and leaves less to a cook's imagination. Employees also crafted a more accurate meal count so food wouldn't go to waste.
"We've had a chance to help the county -- and help ourselves," said Harry Graham, dietary captain at the detention center, among those to receive $500. "The food we switched to has been as good. If not better."
In the maintenance division of the Department of Recreation and Parks, 91 workers split $7,896 after cutting a private company's contract to mow grass.
The workers did the mowing themselves; they also recommended shifting some full-time jobs to seasonal slots.
Wesley Martin, a maintenance supervisor in Cockeysville and married father of two, pocketed about $85 for his efforts. Good timing, with the holiday season in full swing.
"It's a very rewarding program," Martin said. "It allowed the workers to feel more involved. Management was willing to listen to any of the ideas."
The nearly $29,000 saved in the two departments marks the first tangible sign of progress in a program expected to cost the county $380,000 in fees for consultants and staff by mid-1997.
The county is gambling that the program -- part of County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's campaign platform when he won office in 1994 -- will reap more savings as it continues in the initial two test departments and spreads to the Department of Public Works.
"If at some point in time we believe we're just throwing money at this, we'll disband the program," said Kirchner. "As long as we feel we can save the county money by doing this, we'll continue it."
Some involved with the effort are optimistic the county will more than recoup the initial $380,000 investment.
"There's a one-time cost for eternal gains," said Michael Conte, director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute of Towson State University, the lead consultant on the program.
He draws an analogy: "It's extremely short-sighted to think you're going to build a bridge and recoup all of your costs the first year in tolls. This is like building a new structure in county government."
There are other benefits, Conte argues. The program gets employees talking. And it could help improve the public's image of government employees.
"I think people have a real bias against government, especially these days," Conte said. "The rage is privatization, shrinking government. Very negative attitudes about government employees."
In Gainsharing, he said, public employees "offer something valuable: namely, your ideas. Give us your ideas, and we'll actually pay you for them."
Pub Date: 12/20/96