Charles County commissioners announced last week that they will evaluate whether to merge training and technology programs across county government departments, the Sheriff's Office and the public schools.
Streamlining such operations could reduce costs, the commissioners said in a news conference Wednesday. But officials at the Sheriff's Office and Board of Education were skeptical about the proposal, saying that it took them by surprise and that the consolidation of technology operations could compromise security.
"I was puzzled," Sheriff Rex Coffey (D) said. "I can only assume that someone misspoke when they mentioned the Sheriff's Office in that. . . . Not anybody can just jump in there and look at our stuff."
The commissioners announced the proposal publicly before discussing it with Coffey or school officials. Late Friday, Coffey said he had not been contacted by the commissioners or county staff members.
Board of Education spokeswoman Katie O'Malley Simpson said it was premature to discuss the proposal because board members and school officials had not been contacted by the commissioners.
Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large) said he casually talked about the possibility of streamlining operations with Coffey before he was elected last fall and with school Superintendent James E. Richmond several years ago.
"It's been brought up before," said Cooper, who was a member of the school board before being elected commissioner.
Still, this is the second time in the past month that the commissioners have made a major public announcement without first briefing those affected by the news. Four weeks ago, commissioners announced a far-reaching series of 22 changes to the county government's structure and practices that took employees by surprise. Some employees were so riled that they sat in the commissioners' meeting room during a televised meeting to protest the action.
The commissioners said they will form a work group and/or hire an outside consultant to evaluate the feasibility of consolidating information technology operations. Cooper said the proposal is aimed at eliminating duplication and streamlining operations to cut costs when the state and county governments are projecting revenue shortfalls.
"We have possible duplication, and I think it will give us a lot more strength to all be on the same system," Cooper said. "We're opening the doors for change."
The commissioners control the county purse strings. The Board of Education and the Sheriff's Office account for the top two allocations in the county budget.
"The point is that the commissioners finance the Board of Education and the Sheriff's Office," Commissioner Gary V. Hodge (D-St. Charles) said. "It only makes sense to look at how it could be performed more efficiently."
"It's all the same money from the taxpayers, and we're trying to get the most bang for the buck," Cooper said.
Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret) said some technology and maintenance operations are similar in all three agencies and are redundant. She suggested that a potential merger could include the College of Southern Maryland, where she is director of the education talent search program.
"I think we're really looking at things where we have mutual interests," Patterson said.
The school system is willing to work with the commissioners to identify areas of duplication, such as training programs, O'Malley Simpson said. Earlier this year, school board members partnered with commissioners for training sessions on multicultural diversity.
"Whenever we can work with another agency, we will," she said. "Each of these agencies has a unique technology function, but there are common areas that we believe we can possibly work together with. We are always looking for ways to do that."
Coffey was more skeptical of the commissioners' proposal. He said that his office uses different technologies than those in other county agencies and that he worries security could be jeopardized if the operations merge.
"Given the confidential and sensitive investigative information that's handled by us, I can only assume the rumors of consolidating wouldn't be applicable to the Sheriff's Department," Coffey said. "I want to do what's best for the county, no question, but at the same time, I want to make things work as smoothly as possible."