Back to the efficient and cost-effective future with the Oswego County Legislature

14th District County Legislator Stephen Walpole. Photo courtesy Oswego County.

OSWEGO — Two resolutions passed out of the Infrastructure, Facilities and Technology committee at the Nov. 12 County Legislature meeting.

Stephen Walpole, 14th District county legislator, representing parts of Scriba and serving as chairman of the Infrastructure, Facilities & Technology and vice-chairman of the Finance & Personnel committees discussed the resolutions.

The Infrastructure, Facilities & Technology Department, formerly two separate departments, Internet Technology being one and Buildings & Grounds the other, cobbled together a few years ago in the heat of the urge to merge movement of shared services, like many relationships of unlikely partners, over time, just didn’t work out as well as was hoped, according to Walpole.

The county had just contracted with Onondaga County Purchasing, hoping for savings on purchases, and in the spirit of those times, “it seemed to be the right direction to combine” the two very different departments with one director overseeing both. Now, it will go back to being two departments.

“Over time,” Walpole said, ”we saw it was probably a smarter move to separate. So, we’re exploring all different options at this time.”

Those options may result in one director over both departments, two directors, one over each department, or no directors, according to Walpole.

“We’re trying to find the best way where we can have a person that’s actually running the department who’s really hands-on and working it,” Walpole said. “Hopefully, make it a little more efficient.”

In fact, that seems to be Walpole’s preference.

“I would rather get a report from the guy that’s physically hands-on out there doing it,” Walpole said. “Then you get exactly what the heck’s going on.”

Back to the future seems to have been the overriding theme this month as the legislature also decided to go back to their own Purchasing Department, a department that was eliminated three years ago in favor of contracting with the larger Onondaga County Purchasing Department in the hope of saving money on large, bulk purchases. That didn’t work out quite as well as was hoped either.

“At first, it seemed like a really good idea,” Walpole said of contracting with Onondaga. “We could save money on a lot of potential things. Let’s face it, when you’re buying in bulk, you do get things cheaper, and that was always the goal, to save money. When we did that, it was beneficial to us on certain things, like buying bulk paper. But Oswego County differs from any other county in the state, because a lot of the things we do are unique to Oswego County, such as we make our own blacktop. Other counties are just buying bulk quantities of this and that. So, it works out better for those counties to do that. But, in Oswego County, it was quite a bit more complex. A lot of times, these things change day to day, and you can’t get the personalized service from Onondaga County that you can from Oswego County. Onondaga’s method was kind of lengthy, and there are certain things you need ASAP. When you have your own purchasing guy, he can do that.”

And then there was the software issue. Onondaga County was on one system, PeopleSoft, while Oswego County was on another, and the two didn’t work together very well, Walpole said.

“The delays we already had,” he said, “were increased. It’s one of those things we thought would have turned out a lot better, but it didn’t. In the end we realized the money we were saving on bulk materials on certain things, didn’t always weigh out in the end.” And so, another relationship hits the rocks and an old one comes back into the picture.

The county will now have to hire a purchasing agent and rebuild its Purchasing Department. In the meantime, Oswego will still work with Onondaga on some purchases. “Even if it takes us eight months or the whole year to get us in the direction we want to go,” Walpole said, “so be it. But in the end, we want everything done the most efficient, best cost-effective way possible.”

The county seems constantly willing to learn from the new things they’ve tried, take the best of their experiences, and move them into the future, even when that looks like a return to the past. Despite a couple experiments not living up to their hopes, the county is stepping into the future with some valuable lessons, one of which is the philosophy of streamlined, cost-effective, highly-efficient government. And it’s finding ways to spread that philosophy throughout the towns. Take the example of sand.

“We used to provide sand and salt for all the towns, which was obviously costly,” Walpole said. “We’ve always been trying to look at ways to make it beneficial for towns to use less material. So, what better way to get people to use less material, that’s where we went to the cost-per-mile.”

Previously, the county found that even in a light winter, they were still getting billed quite a bit by the towns for plowing county roads, because that’s what the towns depended on for their revenue. The more the towns plowed, the more they made. And the more sand they used.

“When we went to the cost-per-mile,” Walpole said, “we put the ball in the towns’ hands, so to speak.”

The cost-per-mile system paid the towns a set amount per plowing season. There was no longer an incentive for towns to plow perhaps more than was really necessary. The price of sand was figured in to their seasonal revenue, but it left the door open to the towns to seek out ways to save and make more money.

“So,” said Walpole, “it made it beneficial to them to run more efficient. They were getting x amount per mile, and that would cover their materials. We figured out exactly what it cost us to mine sand and that’s in turn what we charged the towns. Well, Oswego County’s a pretty big county, and if you’re all the way at the northern end of the county, and you would like the sand at our price, you would have to come and get it. With the cost of diesel fuel and all, by the time you come from the northern end of the county all the way to the other end, and you’re hauling it back and forth, the cost of your material just went up. Therefore, if you have a local person you can get your material from, and it’s going to save you money, then it’s smarter to go that route. And it gives them the option to do that. This way, if they can run it more efficiently, at the end of the year, the money that’s left over, stays within the town highway department. At first, no matter how we explained it, there were a lot of people that were adamant about it, but when we got through our first year, they found it worked out great, because the first year was a fairly light winter, so these people had a surplus of money left over. And it also made it easier for the county to budget things. It just made it so it benefited the towns to be more efficient. That’s the bottom line.”

Now, in an attempt at engineering even higher efficiencies, and out of a desire to work their way out of the sand business, the county is raising the price of sand to the towns. Walpole stressed safety is still a major concern and priority, but the hope is the towns will become even more efficient in their use of sand and in finding other sources for their supply.

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