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County redo makes do with less

Allegheny County's Public Works Department has become the commissioners' poster boy for government downsizing

Tuesday, May 26, 1998

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Three years ago, the Allegheny County departments of maintenance, parks, engineering and construction, and property and supplies were separate fiefdoms that sucked up more than $60 million in taxpayers money.

Today, they operate on a $32 million shoestring. And they even manage to cut the grass in South Park.

Those once-proud empires are now part of the county's Public Works Department, which has become the commissioners' poster boy for government downsizing.

"The budget of public works today is $32 million, and they're getting the same job done, cutting the grass in the parks and even refurbishing many of the pavilions in South Park," Commissioner Bob Cranmer said last week. "We're getting the job done with less money but still in a satisfactory manner."

The department has been the biggest success story of the government reorganization that Republican Commissioners Cranmer and Larry Dunn launched in December 1996. Cranmer and Commissioner Mike Dawida, who ousted Dunn as chairman in August, have continued it.

The consolidation brought about 28 divisions, excluding the row offices and Common Pleas Court, under six new departments -- Aviation, Human Services, Public Works, General Services, Safety Services and Economic Development.

Six "super-directors," each being paid $80,000 to $89,500 a year, head those departments. They report to county Manager Glenn Cannon, whose $100,000-a-year post also was created in 1996. Cannon, Budget Director Carmen Torockio and Solicitor Kerry Fraas report directly to the commissioners.

In some cases, the reorganization is still very much a work in progress.

In General Services, for instance, the change appears to be one of name only. Traditional departments such as elections, purchasing, computer services, human resources and property and supplies seem to function much the way they always have.

It is the same with Safety Services, which includes the county jail, the county police, Shuman Juvenile Detention Center and emergency management. Aviation and Economic Development always have been separate agencies.

"It's disappointing that it has not been anywhere near as effective as it should be," Dunn said. "There has not been consolidation where there could be consolidation, where there should be consolidation."

Turnover has hindered the reorganization. Aviation Director Gary Bishop left in December, and General Services Director Joseph Kriss and Safety Services Director Craig Edwards resigned in April. The commissioners still have not filled the jobs.

One area targeted in the county reorganization was middle management. According to the county controller's office, management and confidential employment decreased from 1,254 people at the end of 1995 to 990 at the end of 1996, when the new departments were created. Since then, 33 more employees have left.

But the success has not been greater than in Public Works, where the reorganization is exceeding expectations. It is responsible for road and bridge maintenance and improvements, the county parks, and design and construction of county roads and bridges. It also took over fleet and building maintenance.

Since starting his job in October, Director Tom Donatelli has centralized inventory, purchasing, payroll and bidding. He said that, in the past, maintenance, parks, and engineering and construction handled those activities separately, causing unneeded duplication.

For example, 12 or 13 people handled payroll before; four people do that job today. Fifteen to 20 worked in purchasing before; six now handle that responsibility.

"I think what it does is give you an economy of scale that makes you more efficient," Donatelli said of the consolidation. "You can do more with less."

Donatelli also plans to close three of the county's eight maintenance warehouses. He estimates the warehouse properties in West Mifflin, Blawnox and Bethel Park might sell for at least $1 million.

He also has adopted a secretary's idea to use employees who sell shelter and ballfield permits at North, South and Boyce parks to help process paperwork for the department. In the past, if those workers weren't selling permits, they did nothing, he said.

Donatelli said much of what he has done was basically a matter of survival. Because of the county's financial woes, his $32 million budget is nearly $5 million less than what he asked for this year.

Full-time personnel in the areas now designated as Public Works dropped from 861 on Jan. 1, 1996, to 585 this year. Nonetheless, Donatelli expects to bring his budget in at less than $32 million in 1998.

"Because of the constraints that were put on the department, there were a lot of intuitive decisions that came out of that," he said.

The county also was able to secure more flexibility in union negotiations, allowing Donatelli to better manage his work force. That means an employee doing building maintenance one day might be patching potholes or clearing snow the next.

"I guess we're trying to get people to be more jacks of all trades," he said.

Maintenance and parks employees are now sharing tools and equipment they once bought separately. A centralized inventory point also has cut down on theft, Donatelli said.

Donatelli credits Deputy Director Barry McMeekin, who was acting Public Works director before Donatelli started, and Sam LaManna, general manager for Orbital Engineering Inc., for laying the consolidation groundwork. LaManna, on loan to the county for six months, brought private sector experience.

Donatelli also acknowledged that the various bureaucracies he inherited probably were bloated in the past.

"I guess to be quite honest, I would have to say yes," he said. "They did a lot more for the communities than maybe they should have. We're not doing that today. We're taking care of our county facilities. That's my charge."

Donatelli said there is more work to do. He said he would like to standardize all computer equipment and pay scales within his department and continue to find ways to do things more efficiently.

"I'd like to see this organization make so much sense and be so ironclad that nobody would think of changing it," he said.


List of county departments and their budgets:

Allegheny County departments reorganize



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