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Outtakes 7/5/12

Functional Puffery For one more year, Escambia County, City of Pensacola, Emerald Coast Utility Authority and Escambia County School District dodged any meaningful discussion of functional consolidation.

There have been some minor acts such as the garage at the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office taking care of others’ vehicles. However, talks about dispatch, IT, purchasing, code enforcement, and fire and police consolidations have gotten nowhere.

John Peacock, who served on the Escambia County Consolidation Commission, warned when Commissioner Wilson Robertson and others preached the virtues of functional consolidation over actual consolidation that the talk was only puffery. He was right.

“Taxes are going higher, services are going down,” Peacock said in a 2010 consolidation forum sponsored by WSRE. “I haven’t heard any elected officials offering up any other way to fix our government or our economy.”

Commissioner Robertson countered with the argument that the elected officials were the best ones to figure out how to consolidate and save money.  However, little has happened.

The 2010 consolidation plan was flawed. The public had no input in the final document, unlike the city of Pensacola’s new charter, and that doomed it. The consolidation commission was given an opportunity to stay in place, hammer out the details and possibly even recommend functions that could be merged, but hurt feelings prevailed and the body disbanded, leaving functional consolidation in the hands of the county commissioners, city council and other local elected officials.

So what happened? Nothing.

This budget cycle was the year to make functional consolidation a reality. Escambia County faced a $9.6 million deficit. The City of Pensacola’s General Fund revenue was projected to fall $2.3 million. The School District saw its Obama stimulus dollars dry up. Yet no one moved to consolidate like services in an effort to cut expenses.

The irony is that the bureaucracies that fought the process to protect their fiefdoms and staffs are seeing their departments shrink as revenues decline. Instead of an orderly, purposeful reorganization that streamlines all our local governments and agencies, the cuts have been forced by circumstances beyond their control and have services at risk.

A new consolidation commission needs to be appointed, one without a pre-written plan, but one that focuses on functional consolidation. To simplify the process have the commission focus on one or two areas, like code enforcement and purchasing. Once those functions are consolidated then move on to the harder ones such as fire and police. The public needs to take control of the process because the elected officials simply don’t have the will to make it happen despite the lip service that they give it.

Functional consolidation in 2013 should be part of every local budget workshop. Let’s hope we can reboot the process.