Some in Pr. George's question layoff of energy cost-cutter

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010

Of all the cutbacks made during an ongoing budget crunch in Prince George's County, some say laying off Karl Berntson could end up being among the more costly. That's because the aim of his former job -- energy manager -- was to save the county millions of dollars in utility costs.

Berntson, 60, of Montgomery Village had been tasked with overseeing upgrades to make systems in county buildings more energy efficient, a job he performed for Maryland for eight years before going to Prince George's. He is one of about 50 workers who have been laid off by County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) in response to a large cut in state aid to the county.

Now, during one of the most challenging budget cycles in recent memory, the county will save Berntson's $95,000 annual salary but could be missing out on much more, some members of the County Council say. His dismissal highlights the struggle that localities are having in striking a balance between cutting short-term expenses to stay afloat and pursuing long-term improvements.

Berntson, who said he found the county's utility costs to be more than double what officials thought they were when he first arrived, estimates that over time, he could have helped achieve a 25 percent reduction in the county's multimillion-dollar annual utility costs. And his more than 30 years of experience won't be used while the county spends millions in federal stimulus funds earmarked for energy-efficiency projects.

Some are questioning the wisdom of leaving his position vacant.

"I appreciate the crunch that we're in right now, but if there is anybody that can actually save money for the county . . . it's definitely" Berntson, said council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), who in a 2006 letter urged the county executive to create the energy manager position. Berntson joined the county in 2008.

"When you're trying to cut costs, you need to make sure you're not costing yourself more than you're saving," said County Council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel). "I'm concerned that that particular move was shortsighted."

Johnson's spokesman, John Erzen, said the county spends about $17 million a year on utilities, not counting the county library and community college. He said the loss of a county energy manager "will not be a loss to the county" in terms of improvements.

A contractor with "15 years' experience managing energy projects" is handling energy improvements in 10 county buildings, with plans to address more buildings in the future, and his work is being paid for out of the savings generated, Erzen said. He said that Mow Soung Cheng, a special assistant to the director of the county's Department of Environmental Resources, is now in charge of Prince George's broader energy strategy. Cheng, who has worked for the county since 1987, has a doctorate in water resource systems engineering, Erzen said.

"He is very competent," Erzen said. "He is actively seeking to find energy-efficient technologies above and beyond what we're already doing. . . . Wind, solar, you name it, he's looking for it."

But some, including Campos, say that the fact Berntson was hired in the first place was evidence that his skills were needed. "Otherwise, it would have been a moot issue from the very beginning," Campos said. "The reason we created [the position] is because we didn't have anybody like that."

Berntson worked for the state first as a contractor and later as chief of energy projects and services for the Department of General Services. He said that during that time, he oversaw $160 million in upgrades to ventilation, plumbing, windows and lighting systems at state facilities, which are projected to save $190 million in utility costs. The upgrades were financed with loans that are being repaid with the savings they generated, so the state's budget didn't need to be increased to make the improvements, he said.

Berntson said his first task when he joined the county was to establish an accurate base line for its annual utility costs, which took nine months. In a 2007 executive order on green initiatives, Johnson said the county's energy costs exceeded "$5.7 million" a year. But Berntson said software glitches and inaccurate records gave the county a false picture. Through data collected from power companies, he estimated that it was actually more than twice that.

In his time with Prince George's, Berntson said he oversaw upgrades performed by outside contractors in 10 county buildings that will achieve savings of eight to 17 percent. He was also part of a grant application team that secured more than $6 million in federal stimulus funds for energy efficiency efforts, he said. But his improvement plans for more than 130 buildings elsewhere in the county went unrealized.

He is now collecting unemployment.

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