Could the city and county combine tasks?

By Pat Caldwell/Baker City Herald April 25, 2014 02:44 pm

By Pat Caldwell

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An idea to consolidate portions of the Baker City Public Works Department with the Baker County Road Department resonates with some city councilors, but what that process would actually mean — and how it could be executed — remains undefined.

Some members of the Baker City Council consider a plan to consolidate certain government branches a viable method to save money and increase efficiency.

The consolidation concept is not a new one. 

Several years ago the city planning department folded into the county, and the city and county also have combined their building inspection departments.

The Baker County Consolidated 911 Dispatch Center is also a combined operation.

One of the major goals for the City Council last year was to review methods to consolidate the public works department with the county. The idea stands a good chance of surviving a council evaluation and becoming a 2014 objective as well.

Still, the actual mechanics of the process remain nebulous. While a move to combine city public works — or at least one branch, such as the street department — with the county road department does appear to offer some tangible, potential cost savings, a host of daunting details and lingering questions endure.

“It would be like all things, it would be relatively complex, trying to figure out how you would do it and with two different elected bodies and two different staffs. We haven’t really gotten anywhere where we were talking specifics with anything,” said Fred Warner Jr., chairman of the Baker County Board of Commissioners.

Already the county and the city public works department share a lot of work and equipment, Baker City Public Works Director Michelle Owen said.

“Over the years we’ve talked about it (consolidation) periodically. We share equipment already and we find ways to partner with ODOT (Oregon Department of Transportation) and the county,” Owen said.

Owen, however, pointed out that the overall mission of the county road department and the street wing of the city’s public works department are dissimilar.

“I don’t think county roads will take over city streets, they are very different,” she said. “The road department and public works do different things.”

Yet Owen conceded that the effort to unite with the county on specific projects to save money is a primary goal. 

“There are ways we can work together. There are more ways to partner rather than consolidation. Are we looking for ways to partner (with the county)? You bet,” she said.

City Manager Mike Kee also acknowledged that the different roles the county road department and public works perform can create potential challenges to a consolidation.

Another problem, he said, is that while the broad outline of consolidation is easy to grasp, the specifics of any potential plan aren’t entirely clear.

“It has never been defined,” Kee said.  “I know what consolidation is because we’ve consolidated a couple of things since I’ve been here. But it’s never been defined. I can tell you in the conversations, after we throw out consolidation, is we need to do everything possible to be more efficient.”

Kee also agreed with Owen regarding the challenge to mesh the two different missions of the departments.

“The county road department and the public works department have two different missions. Even the things we do that are somewhat alike are different. They build county roads, typically, without gutters and sidewalks and we do it differently,” he said.

Owen said while periodic discussions about the consolidation occur, officials still have not found a viable method to make such a plan feasible.

“In having talked about it in concept we haven’t found a way that makes sense,” she said.

Baker City Mayor Richard Langrell said he thinks consolidation of services in general is a good idea. But he’s thinking beyond the maintenance of streets and roads.

“Police and sheriff would be an excellent example of where we could consolidate and actually save money,” Langrell said.

He also believes combining the city’s public works and the county road departments is sensible.

“We’d be a lot better off with street repairs. Asphalt could probably be handled by the county. They are a lot better at that. The fog coats and chip seals could be better handled more efficiently through the county,” he said.

Langrell also suggests city officials consider privatizing some current public works functions.

“A lot of the public works could be handled more efficiently and more cost efficiently if it was handled by local contractors,” Langrell said. “But the city is a lot more interested in maintaining a department than cost effective service to the community,” he said.

City Councilor Clair Button said his perception of consolidation of the public works and road departments is that it is a critical discussion point, not necessarily an explicit goal. Finding ways to partner with the county on projects in order to cut costs is a more realistic and sustainable aim, he said.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion about it,” Button said. “The thing was, it was not a hard and fast goal. We’d look for opportunities where we could consolidate activities, if for example, people with certain skill sets that could match ours.”

Button said elected leaders conferred about sharing maintenance tasks and vehicles. The object, he said, was to explore a number of prospects to share services with the county.

“So to me that (consolidation) goal was a direction to look into, investigate, talk it out with Fred (Warner) and see if there were any opportunities to share services. Not necessarily would we give over all of our public works staff to the county or vice versa,” he said.

Langrell said he isn’t advocating totally disbanding public works but said any and all cost-saving measures — from consolidation to privatization — need to be reviewed.

“You couldn’t get completely rid of public works. There are some public works that the city would definitely want to keep but there are other parts that could be better maintained through the county and private contractors,” he said.

Kee said a key question rests on whether or not projected costs savings would justify a major reorganization.

“What’s the cost savings? I’ve been involved in consolidations. You don’t take higher paid employees and consolidate them for lower pay. You can’t do that. What happens is that those employees with higher paid, their wages are frozen until other employees catch up to them. Usually what the costs savings are is administrative overhead,” he said.