Government Waste In One Word: Duplication

NBC Bay Area

Few subjects draw more ire than the issue of government waste and duplication.

Almost everyone has his or her personal story about an inept federal bureaucracy that provided wrong answers to questions or a DMV employee who seemed to take a four-hour lunch. Ah, if we could only control the wasteful costs of government, maybe we wouldn't have to think about the endless search for new revenues.

The problem is that we're looking at the wrong places. The federal and state governments are relatively lean machines compared to the unnecessary overlap that occurs at the local levels. What about those federal earmarks?  They amount to $15.9 billion this year, less than one percent of the budget actually controlled by Congress.

What about unnecessary state employees? Despite the recent claims by some folks running for high office, California ranks 48th in the number of state employees per capita.

If you want to see unnecessary waste, look where you live. Local governments represent the largest areas of duplicative services within close proximities of each other.

Consider Santa Clara County. In this relatively compact geographical setting, there are 18 public school districts--each with a superintendent and support staff. Similarly, there are 11 fire departments and 13 police departments, each with a chief, other executives and equipment that could be shared instead of solely owned.

Most of these services exist in cities that are right next to each other, yet they operate as individual fiefdoms.

Los Angeles County actually has more egregious examples. True, the geographical footprint is larger, but 79 school districts?  With respect to public safety, L.A. County contains 29 fire departments and 46 police departments--most of which are in densely populated areas. Here, too, each school district has its own superintendent and support staff; each fire and police department comes complete with its own chief, deputy chiefs, and separate equipment.

And by the way, why is it so necessary for San Francisco--the only city/county in the state to have both a sheriff and a police chief? Talk about an antiquated system of government!

Some of this might have made sense 50 or 100 years ago, when some cities were  separated by vast swaths of land. But many parts of California now are densely populated and can be served just as well by merged services with huge savings.

All we have to do is look to the private sector as a role model for what should be done. When one company merges with another, the first thing the new entity does is purge duplicated employees, particularly those in management. The end result almostalways is more efficiency and better service. Local government bodies need to do the same thing.

Some local governments have seen the light. Recently, the Bay Area city of San Carlos decided to disband its local police force and use the services of the San Mateo County sheriff. The savings: $2.1 million annually for the same level of service!

Make no mistake, there will be resistance to this suggestion--from parents and school administrators, from police and fire officials, and from various unions. But the next time you want to know why the schools seem so bloated with administrators or why local governments don't have enough police on patrol, it may be because of our unwillingness to give up small departments for larger, more efficient organizations. The price for that convenience is becoming more expensive every day.

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