Correction to This Article
This article about Montgomery County's attempt to eliminate agency redundancies for budget savings said that the Montgomery County Department of Recreation is in the executive branch of the county government and is also part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. It is in the executive branch but is not part of the park and planning commission.

Budget-cutting Md. counties hear complaints within ranks

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010

To sign a 6-year-old up for the "Going Buggy!" summer camp at a Montgomery County park, where petting a three-inch cockroach is a possibility, parents can click on, request a personal identification number and begin counting the days before barbecue-flavored mealworms are served to their aspiring entomologists.

But to sign a kid up for the "Bugs, Bugs, Bugs" summer camp at a county recreation center a few miles away, parents would need to click their way to and register for a different six-digit PIN and a new customer number before getting on with their arthropods.

Unlike on television, or in much of the country, there is no Parks and Recreation Department in Montgomery. There's a Parks. And there's a Recreation. There are two budgets, two sets of employees, two directors, two registration Web sites.

The disconnect illustrates a challenge facing governments nationwide. Recession-battered budgets are prompting officials to scour their operations for costly redundancies. But few specimens can be as squirmy or elusive as the promise of saving money by eliminating bureaucratic overlap.

"Local governments are looking desperately to find ways to maintain services at the same or lower cost," said Ron Carlee, director of strategic initiatives at the International City/County Management Association. There is a new willingness to talk about consolidation and reach beyond political boundaries to share resources, he added, but a big asterisk remains.

"Mostly, it's a pain to do," said Carlee, a former Arlington County manager. "The control and autonomy question comes into play."

In a vast local government like Montgomery's, where even the scaled-back budget proposal tops $4.3 billion, opportunities for savings are plentiful. Tradition, law and years of flush budgets have helped split Montgomery's government into fiefdoms handling similar tasks.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) proposes the size of the budget for each major area of county governance, including general services, public schools, Montgomery College and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The County Council sets the final funding for each. But the schools and other agencies shape their own spending, which can cause repetition.

Digital divides

Take, for example, how Montgomery manages its data centers, the stacks of servers and vaults of digital information that direct or store everything from e-mail and Web traffic to backups of critical systems.

County agencies pay for five data centers. The general government facility is run by the executive branch. The school system, college, and the park and planning commission each have their own. There's also one for the Housing Opportunities Commission. They each pay for facilities, electricity and backup contracts.

"What we have here is 25 years of technological evolution," said Steven Emanuel, chief information officer for Montgomery's Department of Technology Services. Emanuel proposed a joint center, but the agencies haven't found $50,000 for an initial analysis.

"It's technically possible," he said. "Now it's a matter of figuring out how to get it done."

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