New program encourages county employees to come up with cost savings

( Michael Laris / The Washington Post ) - David Rivas explains how he figured out the county was changing transmission fluid too often in its buses and wasting money. Montgomery County is paying county employees who come up with innovative ways to save taxpayer dollars.

David Rivas pays attention to details. So when the bespectacled government mechanic heard something that didn’t add up in a recent class on bus maintenance, he dug into the three-inch-thick troubleshooting manual.

And there it was: Montgomery County, he figured out, had for years been changing transmission fluid twice as often as it should.

It was more than a passing revelation for Rivas, a father of three whose wife lost her job as the family was saving up to buy a house.

With his discovery, the 27-year-old worker found his way into a curiously lucrative cost-cutting effort by Maryland’s largest jurisdiction, which is encouraging employees to come up with ways to save money.

After they put their ideas into action, the county is letting employees share in the savings, with potential payouts in the thousands of dollars. It’s a way of giving frontline employees a voice in the way things work.

“The county’s been here for a long time, so a lot of people are, I guess you can say, stuck in the way of doing things,” Rivas said. “For me and my family, it’s time for me to step up. . . . There are so many different things I would like to do for them, and with them. I have to try to do as much as possible.”

So at his crew chief’s suggestion, Rivas shared his insight with a group of workers who had volunteered to scour Montgomery’s fleet operations for waste, one of five such groups across the county government.

Giving employees a little cut is a well-worn business strategy. But it remains touchy in the public sector, where in Montgomery County, for example, officials resort to bureaucratic euphemisms like “gainsharing” or “rewarding excellence.” After all, penny-pinching would seem to be part of every government worker’s job, and paying for it might be seen as an admission that the reality is otherwise.

But with governments at every level facing hard fiscal decisions, some officials are willing to pay their employees to find ways to save.

Last week, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) announced a supercharged suggestion box program for state employees, who were given two weeks to submit smart money-saving ideas. The winner gets $2,500.

In Montgomery, the workers in search of savings had been at it for months but hadn’t found anything on the scale of what Rivas uncovered.

So they asked him, “Do you have proof?”

When Rivas provided it, he said: “They basically told me, ‘You’re on the team now. Don’t go anywhere!’ ”

They ditched a PowerPoint presentation and decided to pitch the transmission fluid proposal and a number of others by acting out an episode of “The Price is Right.” The mechanic was David “Drew Carey” Rivas. Last month, county officials approved the ideas.

Once the savings are borne out, including the estimated $70,000 that won’t be spent on transmission fluid, each team member is slated to take home a $5,000 check from taxpayers. Rivas said his money will be headed straight for his family’s house fund.

Incentive programs like Montgomery’s have bipartisan appeal and offer a rare forum for agreement between labor leaders, who feel besieged in an era of government retrenchment, and free-marketeers who are keen to give officialdom a shove with capitalism’s invisible hand.

“Incentivizing isn’t only giving them money. It’s making them feel they’re part of the operation,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who launched a similar effort when he was Baltimore County executive and is now the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

From keeping the grass cut on ballfields to killing Osama bin Laden, tapping ideas from the rank-and-file has proved to be a potent strategy, said Ruppersberger, who plans to push for a federal pilot program to spread the concept.

In Montgomery, Gino Renne, head of a large government employee union, and Isiah Leggett, the county executive, have been locked in a fierce disagreement over benefits cuts and collective bargaining. But they are both behind the effort, which is written into the contract with employees.

Of course, one potentially uncomfortable reality of opening up government to teams of highly motivated waste hunters is that they are likely to find a good deal of, well, waste.

And that’s what happened.

Take the separate metal shops that make street signs and traffic signals. The county was dumping signs tagged with graffiti or run over by careless drivers into a big scrap-metal recycling bin. Workers weren’t sorting out the pricier aluminum, forgoing thousands of dollars in recycling proceeds. The signal shop was actually paying a trash hauler to take the valuable aluminum away.

“It was just kind of assumed that was being taken care of properly. No one was in the know,” said Joe Pospisil, a transportation planner who helped lead the effort, estimated to save $15,000.

The savings do not yet amount to much more than a rounding error in Montgomery’s $4.37 billion operation. But they still add up, and officials plan to add more teams.

They are confident that there will be a snowball effect, as has been the case with the massive air-conditioning system at the Music Center at Strathmore, the county-owned concert hall where Patti LaBelle and Kris Kristofferson have performed.

During the warmest months of the year, the practice has long been to keep the air-conditioning system churning 24 hours a day, leaving the 180,000-square-foot facility refrigerated long after Rosanne Cash or the violinists from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have exited the stage.

One reason: Workers needed to keep a tiny, 12-by-16-foot security office cool.

A team member had another hunch: Could the county be paying large sums for sewer services it wasn’t actually using?

Yes, it could.

At Strathmore alone, Montgomery pays to channel hundreds of thousands of gallons of water from the air-conditioning system into the sewer, even though most of that water evaporates or goes into a storm drain. There’s an easy fix.

“Because I’m a plumber, I was like, ‘You got to have a sub-meter!’ ” said Sean K. Collins, who works across the county.

With a new meter and shutting off the air conditioner when no one’s around, they estimate the county will save $23,000 per year. (They’re still waiting on the $22,000 they need to install the meter and a little air conditioner for the security room.)

The employees who came up with the plan stand to get half of the first year’s savings. That’s a couple of thousand dollars apiece, and they’re free to look for more savings elsewhere.

“Yeah, that sounds awesome,” Collins said.

They’re already scurrying around the county finding other buildings wasting money on sewer bills they shouldn’t be paying.

Bill Herrmann, a maintenance inspector, said he can understand a bit of skepticism.

“A lot of people would say, ‘Isn’t that the job of an employee anyway?’ ” Herrmann said.

But documenting real savings isn’t easy and without the new structure, there would have been little chance, or incentive, to meet a couple of hours a week for months to work through the painstaking details, he said.

“We’re all so busy with our day-to-day responsibilities that sometimes we can’t really focus in on the big picture,” Herrmann said, “and with this program, it’s allowed us to do that.”

 
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