I met with Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort on Tuesday to talk about his first 100 days in office. Ossenfort was enthusiastic about what the county had accomplished so far and optimistic about ideas to improve the county in the future.
The transition from the old government structure was one of several successes cited by Ossenfort. About the transition, Ossenfort said, “I remember running for office, I know my opponent and many folks in the community said it’s going to be a rocky road – essentially saying it’s going to be a very rough start. I think it’s been anything but that.”
Ossenfort stressed that a spirit of teamwork has been crucial to the new county government’s success so far.
“There’s a willingness to work together… with Legislative Chairman Thomas Quackenbush, the legislature…we’ve worked very well together…not to say it’s been perfect… but wherever we’ve had differences we’ve been able to get past them in a positive way.”
According to Ossenfort, two of the biggest achievements that have resulted from working as a team have been forging a deal with Fulton County to use its landfill once MOSA is shut down, and the completion of contract negotiations with the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA).
Ossenfort said that progress on both issues had been lagging under the old county government.
“We’ve been really been able to tackle head on some of the things that the previous board had left undone.” In regards to the landfill issue, he said, “This is really something that should have been started beginning of last year.”
In regards to the CSEA contract, Ossenfort said, “This was another one of those issues that was left undone by the previous board. There certainly weren’t any negotiations in good faith over the previous year. We sat down, we cut through a lot of the tough issues right away, and we were able to negotiate this contract in three meetings. If I can do it in three meetings, what’s the excuse for not getting it done for over a year?”
Ossenfort pointed to a newly crafted procurement policy which he expects to be passed soon as an example of how the government is working together to refine its interpretation of the new charter. The policy calls for all contracts to be divided into three different tiers based on the value of the contract. The lowest tier contracts can be signed by the executive unilaterally. The middle tier requires the contract details to be entered into a “procurement record” which is delivered to the legislature monthly. Contracts in the top tier would require approval by the legislature.
“It ensures accountability, transparency and oversight on the part of the legislature, but allows the executive to have the power to operate the office efficiently.”
“We want to get this into local law, and ultimately the administrative code in the charter so that in the future we can ensure that this agreement that was made in good faith, focused on the merits on the policy, will last for years to come.”
When I asked about what important issues were coming up for the county, Ossenfort said that starting in May, capital projects and the budget were going to be a priority. Ossenfort said he would be looking at the current structure of the various departments to see if changes needed to be made.
“One of the glaring things that I’ve noticed over the years, is the way the board of supervisors…the way they’ve acted as far as cutting budgets… they’ve simply removed positions when people retired – over and over and over again – and what it’s done is devastated the county departments.”
Ossenfort said he has been spending time talking with and learning from county employees about their jobs.
“What I’m hearing loud and clear is – the days of doing more with less are over and now we are in a situation where we are doing less with less. And when it comes to our roads and infrastructure, we can’t afford to do less with less. When it comes to making sure a child that is being abused is getting the proper treatment…or a child that needs a certain medicine is getting that medicine…that’s what we’re here to do…”
“Unfortunately, the way that departments have been cut over the years has really jeopardized services. You’re going to see in my budget putting some key positions back to right some of these wrongs.”
Ossenfort also said that he felt confident that potential revenue increases, possibly in the millions of dollars, could be realized by properly documenting and applying for reimbursements from the state for expenses in the Department of Social Services.
“Over the years…we’ve been reimbursed for salaries but not benefits. And we’ve left all that benefit money on the table..I know for a fact you are going to get a press release from me within a month that says we saved well over one million dollars just on the benefit side alone.”
He went on to explain any services provided by other departments to DSS could also be reimbursed, if properly documented.
“Currently there is no mechanism in place where that can be tracked and written documentation provided so that we can get that reimbursement. So we’re working on that as well.”
Finally, I asked Ossenfort about the direction he sees the county going in terms of shared services or consolidation.
“The way I envision the county…I think the county could be the hub of professional services, as far as things like accounting, assessing, legal, engineering. Some of these things that every town and village has…but does every town need an attorney, does every town need an assessor? This is obviously an issue that generates concern on a local level because everyone would like to have their attorney and particular professional services.”
“But when it comes to some of these local ‘rubber meets the road’ types of services like plowing, I think that is better in a decentralized situation. I think the towns know how to plow the local roads better than the county does…so that’s my broad view.”