Friday, December 05, 2008

City Council Feedback: What Have You Done?

One comment said: Before you run for another office, tell me what you did in your current office that made a significant difference.

That's tough for county commissioners because we are not lawmakers. A city council is a legislature that passes ordinances, local laws. A county board is an administrative subdivision of state government with no lawmaking authority.

County government is where the rubber meets the road for many social services that citizens receive. So I don't mean to minimize county government. But county commissioners are like offensive linemen in football grinding away in the trenches, not making the flashy plays that garner individual attention.

I tried like crazy my first two years on the board to pursue city-county merger. Type "merger" into the search box of this blog for more detail. When Kathleen McCallister was defeated in 2006, the anti-merger position became the majority on the board, which stalled that effort.

Since I took office the county's property tax rate has gone down 8.6%, but no individual commissioner can take the credit for that. Productive county workers deserve most of the credit. And generally rising valuations.

The anonymous commenter asked for details. OK. I'll give you two examples: jail and health benefits. But don't say I didn't warn you that this is more like blocking than catching touchdown passes or kicking 50-yard field goals.

Jail. Right after I took office in 2005, Bob Houston left the county jail to run the state pen. I don't think commissioners are supposed to micromanage departments of county government, but that was a case where commissioners needed to get directly involved in the decision. It's one of the most important positions in county government.

The proposal was to install Captain John Hubbard as the interim director while searching for a permanent director. I had people, including some fellow commissioners, all over me saying the sky would fall if we tapped Hubbard. You may recall that there were huge problems in preceding years with allegations of racism and sexism in the work environment. Houston cleaned it up. But Houston himself said the staff made it happen, so I was part of the 4-3 vote to install Hubbard. He did a great job. Everything went fine.

The permanent director we hired did not work out, so six months later were back at it. We reinstalled Hubbard and he held the fort just fine until we got Jeff Newton, who is doing a great job.

Lesson learned: trust your people in county government until proven otherwise. Whatever the stereotypes are about government workers, I continue to be impressed by county workers.

Health benefits. My first three years I was in charge of the Human Resources Committee. One of its priorities is the health plan for county workers.

The only time I had a TV crew come barging in to cover such a committee meeting was when UNMC threatened to pull out of the county health plan negotiated by United HealthCare. I was getting pressure from some county employees and some board colleagues to cave in to UNMC and order UHC to agree to UNMC's terms.

My family gets its health care at UNMC and when the negotiations dragged on for most of 2007, it was getting dicey. In November I was hearing from county employees who were trying to make doctor appointments for January 2008, but UNMC was saying they had better find another doc because it looked like UNMC would no longer be part of the plan.

I met with people from UHC and UNMC, but the board resisted the pressure to issue a mandate. Negotiations finally succeeded.

I thought it would have been disastrous to let UNMC call the tune. Then Alegent and every other provider in our plan would have realized: Hey, just scare the county workers who use us and get them screaming on commissioners and we can get the board to give us whatever we want, too.

Health care costs are hard enough to control without that kind of blank-check process. Either county employees or county taxpayers would be bear the increasing costs. (I voted against adding those extra coverages a few weeks ago.) We pay UHC to negotiate the best deal for us, so stay out of the way and let UHC negotiate.

Sometimes the best course of action is to not take action.


Eric said...

I hope that for the sake of the county employees that they can eventually ditch UHC and get a better insurance company. My family has UHC, and thankfully the new year is bringing a new provider. The county would do well to follow the lead that some employers in this state already taking.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Maxwell,

If you do run for City Council I would hope you focus on the following;
1. keeping the city's fiances in good shape
2. providing good city services
3. promoting the city; tourism, recruiting new businesses, etc.
4. giving the police the tools needed to fight crime & supporting community efforts to reduce poverty/gang violence/teen pregancies - community policing, after school programs, educational programs.
5. maintaining civility at city hall, keeping partisanship to a minimum

thank you & good luck,

life long Omaha citizen - & proud of it....