When I first heard about the county planning to consolidate three departments into one, a cost-cutting budget move came to mind. I figured budget savings in the face of ever increasing expenses led to the change.
It turns out the exact opposite is true in the short term, and there appears to be a lot more to it. The bottom line is it’s going to cost Worcester County more immediately – at least “tens of thousands” according to Commissioner Chip Bertino due to raises going to personnel involved in this “consolidation,” as the county’s press release calls it. When asked the day after the meeting merging three departments into one in a 4-3 vote, Public Information officer Kim Moses said the county expects, “nominal savings (.2%) based on shared personnel.” She added, “… we anticipate new revenues to be generated through the collaborative efforts of these professionals, all experts in their respective fields, as they work cooperatively to identify and attract new businesses, services, and events to our area while also facilitating the growth of existing businesses and tourist attractions in Worcester County.” Until that’s a reality, which is anything but a certainty, this move is costing the county money.
There seems to be underlying political reasons for this realignment. It’s evident Tom Perlozzo, as director of recreation and parks, seeks more responsibility and authority in the county. It’s clear he’s looking for more than researching and recommending a portable synthetic ice rink for the county to purchase. This is understandable for a man of Perlozzo’s background, which includes 13 years as Ocean City’s recreation and parks director and 15 years in private marketing and sales.
Back when Perlozzo was hired last March, I opined in this space he’s a professional who will want to be a part of big efforts and projects, such as the growth and development he spearheaded at Northside Park in the 1990s. Managing recreation leagues and minor efforts, like crafting a purchasing proposal for the commissioners to review for an ice rink, is not tapping into his expertise. I believed then and still do now he’s looking to be involved in a public-private partnership for a north-end sports complex. The Ocean City Mayor and Council is interested in this as well, while the Worcester County Commissioners have been hesitant to date.
None of this background was obviously included in the press release from the county announcing the formation of the new Worcester County Department of Recreation, Parks, Tourism and Economic Development. Instead, the county maintained through Commission President Joe Mitrecic, “These are very important departments to our tax base, and this unification is exactly what is needed to move the county forward. Like other jurisdictions that have a similar structure, this restructuring is expected to generate a synergy that cannot be duplicated in standalone departments.”
Though there are precedents to show other governments blend recreation, tourism and economic development into one department, it’s usually a move with positive budget savings. Even if the county’s projection of .2% in budget savings is a reality at some point, there’s good reason to think it would be at least a couple years since that’s true. This is happening mid-fiscal year. It’s doubtful the money spent on raises will be balanced by any new revenues in six months.
In the end, the majority votes were there to push ahead with this merging of departments. I think Bertino was right to cry foul over the move. It was clearly a rush job. The resolution naming individual people rather than job titles confirms that as well. It’s highly unusual for personnel to be named in a resolution. The people can change from year to year. The job titles should be in the resolution but not the individual people. As it stands now, if one of the department leaders named in the legal document exits the county, a new resolution will need to be approved. It was an odd oversight.
Bertino, the commissioner representing Ocean Pines, was right when he said at this week’s meeting, “It has been hoisted high upon the shoulders of personality, but it fails to reach the bar of proper due diligence. This proposal hasn’t been vetted, it contains no management measures to determine near- and long-term viability, it has provided no marketing, strategic or operational plan for review, discussion or approval by the commissioners. We haven’t even met with the directors of the departments involved. There has been a headlong rush to make this move without benefit of an objective assessment to determine need or value to taxpayers, nor an understanding of the long-term impacts this will have in the overall operations of county government — both positive and negative — nor has there been a discussion of strategic benefits.”
In response, the county will point to its claim the merge will save “.2%” in the budget. The problem is that was not shared at the meeting when it was approved. In fact, the commissioners didn’t even know what the cost consequences of this move would be when they approved it. Is that good governance? It’s clearly not and confirms to me there was more at play here requiring unnecessary haste.