Making City Hall efficient and effective

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NOW THAT Mayor Martin O'Malley has a laundry list of suggestions from city business leaders on how to improve Baltimore's ailing municipal government, he must make it happen.

"Things have to change," the mayor said last week while receiving the 540 pages of recommendations compiled at his request by the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable of top regional executives.

The report underscores the shocking disintegration of city government over the past decade.

No business would long tolerate such deplorable situations: Sprawling, dysfunctional departments; costly, confusing and duplicative operations; antiquated personnel and labor practices; lack of accountability and performance standards; poor leadership; a stultified bureaucracy; inefficiencies piled upon inefficiencies; management practices that are generations behind the times.

The city's information technology, for instance, is "a mess," in the words of one business leader.

Many documents are still handwritten; agencies can't communicate because they have incompatible computer software and hardware systems; there's no way for fire stations (or recreation centers) to talk with one another; citywide e-mailing is impossible because there are five different systems -- and no directory.

It's a nightmare.

Some 200 corporate executives were asked by the mayor to examine five major city agencies and come back with suggestions. The impetus was a highly successful business-led initiative in Philadelphia under former Mayor Ed Rendell that helped reinvent city government there.

Baltimore, our local business leaders discovered, has a government in disarray. Their 250 recommendations seek to change the way City Hall delivers services.

Yes, there could be significant savings in many of the proposals. But the real objective is to make city government far more efficient.

Here are some of the primary suggestions:

Fire

The mayor has already acted on the recommendation to turn more of the department's focus toward emergency medical service by closing some fire stations and adding ambulance crews.

The entire department has to be reinvented. Out-of-control overtime and personnel leave policies, which costs the city at least $5 million a year extra, must be reined-in. When not answering calls, firefighters should be used to assist in other community-based activities. More professional training, especially for managers, is a must.

So are measurable goals and regular performance reviews.

Setting up cooperative EMS arrangements with local hospitals, especially Johns Hopkins and University, could prove cost-effective and give citizens faster emergency medical treatment.

Higher ambulance fees, in line with other large cities, could help pay for some of these changes. Hiring a grant-writer could yield sizable awards from foundations and federal agencies.

Health

Merging the city's drug-treatment and mental health programs could end duplication and overlap, give clients better care and save money.

Holding private contractors, who deliver much of the department's health services, to tough performance standards could reap big dividends.

Shifting more money from treatment to prevention is recommended as a way to stem health problems before they become severe. Slashing a top-heavy management would permit the hiring of more service-delivery workers.

And simply filling job slots more rapidly would save the city $1 million a year in lost grant money.

Housing

Business leaders found a department in shambles. The Housing Authority, with a $200 million budget, has no chief financial officer. It has no regular financial reporting system or budget planning.

Merging the Housing Authority with the housing department could lead to major reorganizations, consolidation of services and a significant downsizing.

But the department also badly needs a modern computer system. It must shift more funds to maintenance and renovations. The Neighborhood Service Centers no longer serve a useful purpose and should be closed.

Millions could be saved by privatizing specific functions, transferring policing of housing projects to the Police Department and better management of the city's inept demolition program.

Public Works

With 5,600 workers and a $500 million budget, this department is far too unwieldy. Spinning off all internal government services to a new Department of General Services is essential.

A slimmed-down entity could focus on core services to the public, such as trash collection and transportation.

The department could also privatize special activities, such as rat eradication, laboratory services, building security, grass-cutting and tree-trimming.

The department's feeble technology system must be overhauled, perhaps financed by raising fees charged telecommunications and utility companies for running wires through city conduits.

Recreation and Parks

New, dynamic leadership is essential. The department must become aggressively innovative to raise private funds. It must squeeze the maximum out of the $43 million already being spent on after-school recreation by nongovernment and government agencies and companies.

Higher fees for some activities, increased use of volunteers and privatizing the city's soccer fields, ice rinks and rowing facility could improve efficiency and generate more income for recreation.

The task confronting Mayor O'Malley is daunting. The business community's book of recommendations shows how much needs to be done to modernize Baltimore government.

Fortunately, the mayor appears committed. So does City Council President Sheila Dixon. Cooperation will be pivotal as opponents defend the status quo.

The mayor and Ms. Dixon should avail themselves of the corporate community's willingness to lend a hand. They also have an enthusiastic public on their side.

Mr. O'Malley cannot waste any time, though. He must act quickly on the "low-hanging fruit" in the report -- recommendations that can be put in place rapidly with immediate, positive results.

And he must demand a short-term and a long-term game plan from his Cabinet officers to make much of this report a reality.

That may require hiring -- perhaps on loan from a local business -- a "reinventing-government czar" to work directly with the mayor and act as a stern taskmaster.

Change is never easy to accept. The mayor's challenge is to act as a vocal champion of a new and improved City Hall, persuade doubters of the benefits and hold managers accountable for implementing changes that bring governance of this city into the 21st century.

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