IT IS A METAPHOR for a lot of things that are happening around this town: the National Association of Counties, on incurring a $2 million cost overrun on its new headquarters building, has laid off one-quarter of its staff, has seen its executive director resign after 25 years and cut its payroll and operating expenses by $887,000. Just what is this organization, you might ask, and how did it get itself into such a mess?
NACo, first formed in the 1930s to represent county governments, has been an organization with full-time employees for only 25 years, since 1957. Counties are not the glamor boys of local government: though larger than cities, they spend less money and employ fewer people; they provide mundane services, with little of the pretense of "enhancing human development" that you see in some big city governments. NACo was intended to do for counties what the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities have done for municipalities -- to provide lobbying and research services; and to all appearances it has succeeded in doing so for its 2,200 members. County government has become a much bigger business since NACo was formed: employment rose from some 600,000 to 1.7 million, and payrolls rose tenfold from $200 million to $2 billion. Billions more are channeled through county governments in education, welfare and public works programs. Federal programs in all these areas grew more generous and more complex, and so NACo had more and more to do.
Then NACo--like the Carpenters and the Teamsters, like the National Rifle Association and the National Education Association -- decided to put up its own building. It picked a site at 440 First St., NW, just around the corner from the huge Hall of the States on North Capitol, itself a symbol of the increasing size and Washington presence of state governments, and around the block from a hotel with convention facilities. It used first-class building materials. But in managing the project, NACo, or some of its officials, seemed to assume that the kind of growth it had enjoyed for 25 years would continue forever. "Unauthorized staff decisions," as NACo calls them, resulted in $2 million in cost overruns on an $8 million building. When these were revealed, Bernard Hillenbrand, the able executive director who had run NACo for 25 years, resigned. Now, forced to shed at least one-quarter of its staff, NACo can fill only two of the three floors it planned to occupy, and must rent out the rest of the space in a suddenly soft market.
One can readily understand why local government lobbyists want offices with gleaming marble columns and wide vestibules with banks of elevators: why should they have less than the people they lobby in the Rayburn or HUD buildings? But we also remember when most local governments were conducted out of buildings with creaky stairs, brown linoleum floors, and sickly green walls, with the lettering peeling off the frosted glass panels in the door to each office. We are quick to say that local governments do a better job today than they did then, thanks in some measure to lobbying groups like NACo. But we are reminded of the sage who said that successful organizations build huge new buildings just as their momentum begins to wind down. NACo's problem, and the soft real estate market in Washington recently, are reminders that the growth we have seen in government over the last 25 years is not inevitable, and that this city and leaders of organizations within it should understand that mistakes are less easily forgiven in a climate of slow growth than in one of rapid expansion.