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Less with more

Even as one aspect of the Harford County Council's recently announced reshuffling of its staff makes perfect sense, the wisdom of that particular personnel move is precisely the reason why the legislative branch shouldn't be expanding its staff.

Making the expansion even more financially suspect is that it involves the county council replacing people who are leaving their positions only because the council is pushing them out into the general county government office.

The part of the county council's move that does make sense is that it has transferred its legislative drafter position to the county administration's law department. Though it's unlikely to have occurred to those on the county council, this shift is sensible because the legislative branch generates so little of its own legislation. Instead, going back for the past several incarnations of the county council, almost all of the legislation considered comes from the county executive's office. In short, the county's legislative branch doesn't do much legislating.

Even as it continues to do less than it did two decades ago when council members routinely devised and sponsored their own bills, the county council will be costing the taxpayers of Harford County substantially more. In the fiscal year ahead, the council's budget is $2,537,353, which is up $452,349 from what the legislative function was costing the taxpayers in 2009. It's also worth noting that this increase, 21.7 percent, comes at a time when most other county revenue and spending have been flat.

And another thing: the people being cast off by the county council, some of whom have many years of service with the county, are being moved to other county departments, so it is reasonable, at least in the short term to add $431,069.16 to what the legislative function will cost the county's taxpayers in the coming fiscal year. Certainly it may have come to pass that the people whose positions are being moved out of the county council's realm are filling positions that had been vacated by the natural course of retirements, moves and legitimate growth to deal with the needs of the county. Then again, maybe not.

Meanwhile, county council members are defending the reorganization. One, Mary Ann Lisanti, put forth the excuse for the expansion that the new, higher staffing level "is minuscule compared to other counties."

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. Is it really reasonable to compare Harford County with its population of about 250,000 to Baltimore, Montgomery or Prince George's counties, with populations two to three times larger?

Moreover, the justification for increasing the staff should be increased services. Actually, there will be a substantial increase in services provided as a result of the county council's impending staff reorganization, but it will be service to individual council members, not service to the tax-paying public. The reason is simple: The major reason for the big shake-up in staff at the county council office is so each of the seven county council members can have a personal aide.

Presumably, each council member having an aide would increase the ability of individual members to more thoroughly go through the proposals of the executive branch. The reality of the situation, however, is that the council will be paying $30,000 to $40,000 a year for each position, which amounts to entry level for the county. Essentially each of these aides will amount to giving each council member a full-time, county-funded campaign worker.

And there's yet another problem with assigning each council member a personal aide, that being that after each election, individual new county council members are likely to want to hire their own personal aides. This means every four years the county government could be more or less obliged to absorb up to seven staff members. Or the system could be set up so each council aide is a political appointee of the council member, making the position that much more of a county-funded political staffer as opposed to a public servant.

From a certain perspective, the county council's planned expansion is something of a tempest in a teapot. It involves, after all, $2 million to $3 million (if the shifted positions are counted) in a county budget of in excess of $600 million.

From another perspective, however, the proposal is every bit as troubling as anything to have happened in county government in the past several years. The county council, after all, is supposed to act as a check on the county executive, who is responsible for managing the county's various agencies as well as drafting an annual budget. A key component of serving as a check involves thoroughly reviewing and, presumably judiciously cutting, the executive's annual spending plan. If the council can't see the folly in expanding its own staffing levels without a corresponding increase in service to the public, how can the people who pay the bills expect that same council to be vigilant about controlling county spending in general?

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