Christmas at the Courthouse: Spending and Firing

Not a lot of holiday cheer at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in the days leading up to Christmas, as the week was marked by a budget with a record-setting deficit and the shocking dismissal of the county’s long-time human resources director. Both happened over my objections, and both are bad for the county and for you.

The operating deficit in the 2014 county budget is $10.6 million. To put that in perspective, in 2013 it was $6.5 million and in 2011 it was $2.9 million. Why do I reference 2011? Because that was the last year the Democratic majority commissioners passed a budget, and my now colleagues, calling themselves “fiscal conservatives”, criticized us for our “out-of control spending” and warned that big tax increases were coming. However, today they merely dismiss this growing deficit as a “disappointment” (Commissioner Courtney) that “is what it is” (Commissioner Anderson). My, how times have changed.

But my vote against the 2014 budget was not simply to vindicate past budgets or administrations, or to continue to point out hypocrisy or empty campaigns slogans. I simply cannot justify a budget that more than triples the deficit from only three years ago.

More troubling is that there does not seem to be a will to really do anything about it. Sure, there is a lot of lip-service, but there is no willingness to do even relatively simple things to stem the growth of the budget. Minutes before passing their budget, my colleagues approved (over my objections) a $90,000 contract with a lobbying firm and created two new jobs that combined will cost nearly $100,000 (despite their supposed “hiring freeze”). These should have been easy budget reductions to make. Throughout the year, I’ve also said no to other new jobs, fought against contracts, and refused to borrow more money, knowing the bills will eventually pile up and come due. And they have.

I worked over the past few weeks to cut more than $9 million from this budget. But the budget process cannot only be in the fall. It needs to be an ongoing effort throughout the year. And it needs to start with the Commissioners. If we are unwilling to make difficult choices, and difficult cuts, how can we expect anyone else in county government to do so? My work on the 2015 budget starts now.

One job that the county is apparently going to need to fill is a new human resources director, after our long-time HR head was unceremoniously fired a week before Christmas. Obviously, the timing was worthy of Scrooge, but more important is that it was unjustified, poorly planned and reckless.

Even looking beyond the heartlessness of it, it is wrong to fire an HR director with 30-plus years’ experience in county government, and on the cusp of retirement, without cause – real cause, not just nonsensical slogans like wanting a “fresh start”. He deserves better. Our HR department is a lean nine-person operation that serves nearly 2,000 employees, has helped us manage the growing expense of healthcare, and has successfully negotiated numerous collective bargaining agreements with our labor unions to the mutual benefit of taxpayers and county workers. His office’s efforts were validated earlier this year by an outside HR firm who analyzed the office. There is, frankly, no professional reason for his dismissal. And speaking of professionalism, neither of my colleagues will even own up for their action to the media – one hides behind a staffer; the other even denies knowledge of it.

Making matters worse is that there is no idea for the office going forward. There is no plan to promote anyone from within, no plan to interview from the outside, and no proposal to hire an outside firm. The speculation reported in the newspaper about an outside HR firm is just that. The firm referenced in the article has not submitted a proposal to manage the office; nor has any other. There is no direction, and seemingly less thought, in this termination.

It is also reckless. The county remains in court over a similar dismissal of the former county Public Defender, and the newspaper just reported on a recent – and very costly – age-discrimination settlement with a former deputy over the Sheriff’s similarly reckless personnel moves. You, the taxpayer, often are ultimately responsible financially.

All of this is a very disappointing way to close out 2013. You deserve better from your county government. My work is already underway to ensure 2014 ends with better results.