Time For Time System Reform

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Businesses look regularly to control costs, eliminate waste, increase efficiency, and reduce the probability of errors. Those efforts help improve the bottom line and can be the difference between success and failure.

Rising costs and the full implementation of property tax caps at the end of 2019 should have local government thinking along similar lines. The Indiana General Assembly gave St. Joseph County and Lake County a decade longer than other Indiana counties to prepare for the full implementation of property tax caps. We’re nearing the end of that timeframe.

John F. Kennedy once said “the best time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining.” The storm clouds (property tax caps) are forming on the horizon and the time to fix that “roof” is now. But fixing that roof isn’t easy especially within the current structure of local government. Calls for reform and modernization have long been ignored.

In the news last week was a story that helps shine the light on that need for reform. St. Joseph County and the city of South Bend plan to implement a new automated employee time-keeping system. Officials believe the new system will eliminate errors, improve efficiency and ultimately save money. The private sector has been using similar practices for more than a decade.

But approval of the new system was not without controversy. The three County Commissioners, who are essentially the CEOs of the county, couldn’t all agree. And a number of other elected county department heads have yet to buy in to utilization of the new system that experts estimate could save the county $1.8 million annually.

In the end, two commissioners elected to move the county forward on that new system, despite a third commissioner’s opposition. Moving forward was the right decision.

Only in county government do you have three CEOs. No private business or nonprofit organization has three CEOs. They recognize if more than one person is in charge, nobody is in charge. Even city government has realized the need for one single chief executive, the mayor.

Calls to move to a chief executive at the county level, i.e. a “mayor” of the county have long been resisted in counties across Indiana. Critics fear too much power would be consolidated into one position, though it works at the City level with a mayor.

Common sense business decisions like the implementation of a new time system illustrate why one chief executive ought to be in place to make and be held accountable for important business decisions. But the time system debate doesn’t end there.

While many county departments see the benefit of moving from a system where employees write their hours on paper at the end of each pay period and people in each department manually verify those timesheets, not all have bought in. 

The antiquated system of county government has elected officials, not the commissioners, still in charge of individual silos and in a position to resist changes such as the time system.

To date, only about half of the county’s roughly 1,200 employees would use the new system. For example, the county clerk has said she doesn’t plan to use the new system for her sixty one employees, the old system works just fine.

In a modernized county government, a chief executive would be in a position to make decisions like this for each department and all employees of the county, and in the end would be held accountable for the decision. It’s time to revisit recommendations from the 2007 Kernan-Shepard Report before those storm clouds roll in.

Jeff Rea is chief executive officer of the St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce.

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