The wrong way to privatize
The Frederick Board of County Commissioners provided a great example of how not to privatize government services in the way it handled Head Start this week while simultaneously setting back women's rights five decades.
Head Start is a federal program that serves children ages 3 to 5 in families that fall below the federal poverty line: $22,050 in salary for a family of four. The program serves nearly 280 students annually throughout Frederick County, and has existed for four decades.
In fiscal 2011, which ends June 30, the county is budgeted to spend $4.4 million running Head Start, $2.3 million of which comes from the general fund, meaning county taxpayer dollars. The remainder is from federal grants.
But given the stagnant economy, property tax revenue continues to fall and commissioners are projecting a $12 million deficit in what they expect will be a $440 million fiscal 2012 budget.
Commissioners argued that pulling funding from Head Start will help fill that gap, but they went about it all wrong. Commissioners C. Paul Smith and Kirby Delauter even managed to offend women in the process by essentially telling parents they should simply stay married and women should remain home to raise their children.
They reasoned that since their wives stayed home to raise their children, other women should as well, regardless of the circumstances. They should publicly apologize at the outset of today's meeting.
Commissioners also have been downsizing and reorganizing other departments.
On Jan. 31, they announced the elimination of seven positions in, and the reorganization of, the Division of Fire and Rescue Services, saving $670,000 in fiscal 2012.
On Friday, they announced the consolidation of several planning departments into one, the Community Development Division, which will eliminate six positions and save $630,000. They also reorganized the Interagency Information Technologies Division to eliminate two positions and reclassify six others, saving $320,000.
While all the reorganizations affect lives, in the form of employees losing jobs or reduced and altered services for residents, none seem to have the effect that reductions to Head Start would have.
Most residents will not notice changes in the planning division, though critics see them as opening the spigot on development, a point of view that is remains open for debate.
And most residents will not notice changes in the county's information technology department.
But 280 students and their families will feel the effect of reductions in Head Start, and these are people who are among the most vulnerable. Despite what commissioners or county officials say, they did not do their due diligence in making their decision to cut county funding to the program.
Commissioners' President Blaine R. Young acknowledged this week that the board made its decision to pull the funding behind closed doors on Jan. 27. He justified the secret vote by saying it was a personnel matter, a weak explanation for such a far-reaching decision.
Using such reasoning, commissioners could decide every budget issue in secret because it ultimately affects personnel. Make no mistake: Tuesday's public vote to cut the funding was simply for show, and what a poor show it made.
It seems commissioners are operating under the assumption that the best and quickest way to bridge a budget gap is to cut positions. While that is certainly one factor in the equation, it is not the only way to deal with an economic crisis.
Where are the innovative ideas? What does restructuring really mean? How do they objectively measure productivity, efficiency and end-result outcomes? Have they studied best practices among like-sized communities?
Such questions are hard to answer given that commissioners made the decision about Head Start in secret.
When commissioners realized last year that the county faced a deficit in the funding for fire and rescue services, it formed a task force involving emergency personnel to explore the issue and offer suggestions. The result was a thoughtful report that involved stakeholders, and looked at options beyond simple cuts, including the sale of surplus equipment. While the process is not complete and difficult decisions remain to be made, at least commissioners acted publicly.
Too bad they cannot say the same for Head Start.