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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Ten Years In

From January 1 through September of this year, Nassau County awarded 107 no-bid “personal services” contracts to some 90 public and private entities, with a value totaling $16.152 million. There were at least 332 personal services contracts granted in 2008, totaling some $97.47 million, putting the total for the current two-year legislative term at just over $113.6 million.

The term “personal services” is a government term of art. In a way, the county government is temporarily hiring an employee or agency to perform some special task, quickly and without the expense or time of setting up some new program or agency to do it. In fact, a few of the contracts are with “temp” agencies, presumably for personnel needed to fill in or handle overflow work.

Though some of the published descriptions consist of only one or two words, it quickly becomes clear that some critical local government services are administered through these contracts, including support for food pantries, foster care and emergency housing. Some specialty services are contracted out because it is probably less expensive or more efficient than keeping an in-house staff, such as veterinarian care for police equestrian units. But there are also contracts granted to law firms, real estate appraisers, engineering firms (one contract was worth nearly $5 million) and consultants of every kind, and precious little information easily available about what is going on and why this form of relationship has been initiated. A “personal services” contract should almost be a method of last resort, after it is determined that county personnel can’t perform the service and that it’s the cheapest way of getting something done.

These contracts are awarded by the county executive. Since the executive probably doesn’t do $97 million worth of anything else in any given year, it’s fair to call it a primary function. The actual contracts are reviewed only by members of the Rules Committee. Members of the public may apply to see copies. The process was tweaked earlier in this decade to allow more contracts (particularly those worth less than $25,000) to come under review. However, it’s still the same basic system that was in place under the previous executive, Mr. Gulotta, who came under criticism for awarding what Democrats felt was a significant number of large personal service contracts to firms that made campaign contributions.

A decade ago, the issue became a local focal point of dissatisfaction with business-as-usual politics as residents came to understand the extent to which their county’s finances had eroded. A longtime trust had been broken, and decades of solid voting patterns cracked. It is 10 years ago this autumn that political control in Nassau County changed hands. In recognition and homage, we should enact a review and perhaps an overhaul of the personal services contract system.

Somewhere in between zero and $97 million there is a reasonable point at which oversight is improved and the public can become informed and engaged.

That’s a missing critical element in this system. Beyond any feel-good philosophy of open and transparent government is the very practical and incredibly useful employment of thoughtful and talented residents to help solve problems. Detailed summaries and images of these contracts should be available one mouse click away, simple technology that many now expect when dealing with any entity other than local government. Some of Nassau’s 1.3 million residents might read about a needed service and decide that they would like to donate their skills to fixing a situation, or might have experience or knowledge that suggests a better way to do it. This year a contract, next year a better solution. This kind of public engagement is the only way local government can maintain relevancy to our lives. Technology is one tool to make it easier, but the attitude is the key.

Exactly 10 years ago, a candidate for county legislature was quoted in a regional publication: “Personal services” contracts have just got to end, period.” That candidate won, and is still a county legislator. Maybe ending all “personal services” contracts isn’t practical or the best way, but everything should be rethought at least every 10 years or so.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net