Marietta Daily Journal Editorial Quotes Foundation on Consulting Costs

The Marietta Daily Journal’s editorial in the Sunday edition of September 25, 2016 quoted Georgia Public Policy Foundation Vice President Benita Dodd on the cost of consultants in Cobb County. (Dodd is a resident of Cobb County and the Foundation’s offices, too, are in Cobb.) The editorial is reprinted below in its entirety and can be accessed online at http://www.mdjonline.com/opinion/a-parks-consultant-can-t-we-ever-make-up-our/article_916afd20-81ef-11e6-b880-b3e0f19b51d0.html

A parks consultant? Can’t we ever make up our own minds?

Like a farmer hollering “Sooie!” as he empties the slop bucket into the trough, Cobb County showers consultants with expensive contracts every month.

Take last week, when commissioners agreed to pay $224,000 to Lose & Associates Inc. to develop a “comprehensive master plan” for Cobb’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs department.

The plan, according to county staffer Tom Bills, is meant to provide direction for future development and program growth, incorporating a parks and facility inventory as well as trends such as changes in popular sports and leisure activities.The county couldn’t afford to issue $40 million in bonds for greenspace after voters approved a referendum in 2008, and commissioners say they can’t afford to issue them now. Yet they seem to have money to do everything else, including paying a quarter of a million for someone to tell them what kind of parks we need and what should go in them.

Commissioner JoAnn Birrell believes hiring the firm is a terrific idea.

“They’ve done this throughout the country, so they know what to look for,” Birrell told the MDJ this week. “I think it’s good to have a consultant that does this in other areas of the state, other parts of the county, because an outside (firm) coming in to the county has some fresh ideas or maybe knows what the trends are in other places.”

Lose & Associates is undoubtedly au courant in greenspace affairs, yet the question remains, with a parks department that employs 174 people and enjoys a $19.8 million budget, what is keeping the county from designing this plan in-house? And is whatever they tell us worth a quarter million dollars?

It’s a question Benita Dodd, vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, has asked, calling such an expenditure “ridiculous.”

“Consultants serve a purpose, but when that appears to be the purpose of taking taxpayers’ money on an ongoing basis, we have to start questioning the intent of outsourcing,” Dodd said. “In general — and I’m not specifically saying this is the case in Cobb — I see much of it as cronyism. I’m not saying we shouldn’t use outside help, but when it starts raising the cost of projects, it’s not helpful to taxpayers in a so-called fiscally conservative county.”

Indeed, when a job requires a particularly specialized set of skills — bond financing, for instance — there are legitimate reasons for outsourcing the work. But what are the park consultants going to tell us for $224,000 that we don’t know already? For $224,000, you could hire three people knowledgeable about greenspace, pay them each an annual salary of $74,666 and give them an entire year to study, compile and recommend.

Bills argues that designing such a plan does take “particular expertise” and time commitments that are not typically available in parks departments, including Cobb’s.

If this excuse sounds familiar, it’s because the county’s human resources director used it when he explained why he and his department couldn’t design a pay scale study. Commissioners paid the Archer Group $326,420 in 2014 to examine the state of the county’s pay system. Last month, the Archer Group offered various options commissioners could take to become more competitive, the most expensive of which would be to increase employee pay by an annual $20.4 million.

Such spending can be found on every county agenda.

On Tuesday, for example, commissioners are being asked to spend $29,522 on top of the $182,000 they already authorized for a master plan for the county airport. Who knows the airport better than its manager and/or its fixed-base operator? Shouldn’t they know the needs that would better serve clientele?

Also on Tuesday’s agenda is a request to authorize the design of an unspeakably bland logo for south Cobb. Commissioners spent $130,000 on a marketing and branding strategy for south Cobb to produce this logo, among other things, an expense that could have easily been done in-house producing more interesting results.

Commissioners are also being asked to rank the two most qualified firms to carry out the development of a bicycle and pedestrian improvement plan for a cost of $400,000 on Tuesday. Again, is it necessary for someone else to tell us where we walk and ride bikes? 

It bears mentioning that not all the funds for these projects are from the county’s general fund. State and federal dollars are at times involved. But all come from the taxpayers’ pocketbooks in one way or another.

And the expected adoption on Tuesday of the county’s fiscal 2017 budget with a general fund of $383 million underscores how much these expenses add up.

Dodd believes when it comes to such projects, managed competition could be a better approach, suggesting the county department and outside sources bid on handling projects.

“Then choose the better option,” she said. “Or collaborate with volunteers in the community. We have tons of retirees and businesspeople who are Cobb residents willing and able to contribute their time and talents to making Cobb a better place to live.”

There are certainly times when consultants are the way to go — say when building a bridge or designing a water treatment system. The county is not expected to have that expertise in-house.

But for many other projects, the people who know best what a community needs are the people who live there.  The commissioners should press staff on whether each consultant is a need or want.  If it is a need, clearly explain to the public why spending taxpayer money on outside resources is a must have. 

As for the $224,000 parks fee, what gets you the biggest bang for your buck? Giving the money to the consultants or putting that toward the purchase of greenspace?

At some point, we need to make our own decisions and stop paying others to tell us what time it is with our own watch.

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