Michigan's second largest county-Oakland-is home to innovations that the state's other 82 counties may find useful and instructive. These innovations are saving money and improving services to the county's more than 1.1 million residents.
Upon assuming office in January 1993, County Executive L. Brooks Patterson created a Business Roundtable consisting of 125 influential business, education, and government officials. Their task? To systematically evaluate every aspect of the county's government, education and business climate and suggest ways to cut costs, raise the quality of services and attract more businesses. The result was 137 detailed recommendations, many of which are fully implemented. Dozens of others will be accomplished in coming months. A particularly important one is the "One-Stop Shop."
Retaining existing businesses while encouraging new ones to come to Oakland County is at the core of the administration's agenda. The One-Stop Shop customer service center does that by providing, from a single source, essential information on demographics, economy, education, municipal taxes, and other data on the over 420,000 parcels of property which comprise the county. Maintained in electronic format, this information is accessible at the touch of a button from computerized kiosks.
As part of the One-Stop Shop's ongoing efforts to improve services, a cutting-edge geographic information services (GIS) project is underway. GIS map data will be provided to cities, villages and townships within Oakland County, substantially reducing redundant manual mapping efforts at all levels. Working with local governmental units, the County intends to computerize portions of the GIS later this year, permitting on-line access to data for those who need it.
Three other initiatives of Oakland County management underscore its openness to new ways of doing things: the early buy-out of retiree benefit programs, privatization, and technology improvements. The buy-out was a program that offered lump-sum payments to former county workers in exchange for waiving rights to future health care benefits. By 1993, some 400 individuals had retired or otherwise ended their employment with Oakland County and were entitled to future retirement benefits. They were also promised health care benefits, though many had other coverage or other means of securing health care.
The County offered to pay those 400 former employees the actuarially determined present value of their future retirement benefits if they would forgo their future health care benefits. About 150 people exercised that option, which reduced accrued liabilities by over $9 million, or roughly $770,000 in annual health care costs.
Privatization is considered by the Patterson administration to be a valuable tool for restraining the cost of government. Officials from Patterson on down believe that serious exploration of its potential is, as Midland's Mackinac Center for Public Policy puts it, "good stewardship of the public purse." Many functions of Oakland County government have been privatized or at least subjected to the competitive pressures created by the possibility of privatization. The county saved $191,000 annually when it contracted out the food service at its nursing home, for example. It cut out another $425,000 when it stopped processing court notifications (those "you've been served" notices) and gave that over to a business started by a retiring county employee.
A fourth innovation involves the promotion of county government efficiency through the use of up-to-date technology. When Mr. Patterson took office, less than 200 personal computers were available to the more than 4,000 county employees. In the past three years, 1,700 personal computers and related equipment were procured. Workers are more efficient and the county is dramatically changing the way it does business. Among the functions now computerized as a result are arrest warrant authorization teleconferencing, fingerprinting, financial accounting, and the imaging of court records.
County government does not have to fit the sleepy, backward image that many people once had of it. Forward-looking administrations like that in Oakland County are modernizing and streamlining it, something that citizens today have every right to expect.