County to trim advisory boards

Pilot program looks at combining, cutting some of the 50+ groups

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 

With the county spending an estimated $1.4 million a year on more than 50 task forces, commissions and advisory boards, I'm thinking:

  • It's the price we pay for an active democracy. Many of these groups give us valuable information to better serve the public. 13%
  • Are you kidding me... again? With government scratching for every taxpayer penny we've got a million bucks a year for this? Have these folks come to a regular commission meeting to share their views. 69%
  • "There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone". 18%

894 total votes.

At the Feb. 7 Board of Clark County Commissioners meeting, giddy members of the Aging Readiness Task Force celebrated the approval of the Clark County Aging Readiness Plan and encouraged commissioners to let them form a Clark County Commission on Aging.

Buoyed by their work on the task force, the volunteers wanted to keep doing their part to help implement a plan for accommodating the “silver tsunami” of Baby Boomers.

Sure! commissioners said. Why not? The county already has a youth commission, Commissioner Steve Stuart said. Why not a commission for non-youth?

On Feb. 8, commissioners heard one reason why not.

During a work session on the county’s “reconfiguration” efforts to bring revenues in line with expenses, commissioners were reminded that while enthusiastic volunteers might want to put in their time for free, there’s still a cost.

Environmental Services Director Kevin Gray and Karen Streeter, an Environmental Services manager, gave a presentation titled: “Evaluating Functionality and Effectiveness of Commissions, Advisory Boards and Technical Advisory Committees.”

Gray and Streeter are on a team of eight county employees tasked to identify regulatory processes that, if adjusted, could save the county significant money.

Within just five county departments -- Environmental Services, Community Development, Community Planning, Community Services and Public Works -- there are more than 50 active task forces, commissions and advisory boards.

Gray said it costs an estimated $1.4 million a year to host these meetings. He said that figure includes roughly 28,000 hours of staff time, including prep time and post-meeting work.

Some, such as the Solid Waste Advisory Commission, Animal Control Board and the Planning Commission, are mandated by state or county code; others the county voluntarily convenes (a new Clark County Commission on Aging would fall in this group).

Some groups were created within recent memory to elicit community feedback on specific concerns (examples include the Development and Engineering Advisory Board, Camp Bonneville Advisory Group and the Bicycle Advisory Committee.)

Other groups were started a few decades ago “and they are still plugging along,” Streeter said.

Some meetings are well attended and result in valuable feedback; others, not so much.

“All of them require county staff time and money,” Streeter said.

The groups typically meet monthly, in the evenings, and are usually attended by three staff members. The meetings last approximately three hours and, since they are in the evenings to make them convenient for volunteers, require overtime for non-management staff.

Gray didn’t include related costs such as copying agendas and handouts, paid consultants who are sometimes called in to give presentations and food and drinks.

Some groups get food -- “The Planning Commission gets their pizza,” Gray said after the presentation -- and others do not.

Pilot project

Gray and Streeter received permission from Commissioners Stuart and Marc Boldt (Tom Mielke was absent) to try, as a pilot project, to combine three current advisory groups into one, then track the costs and see if consolidation leads to a savings.

The three groups to merge will be the nine-member Solid Waste Advisory Board, nine-member Clean Water Commission and five-member Noxious Weed Control Board. None of the current members will be asked to leave, Gray said. The new group would be called “Clark County Council on the Environment.”

Gray referenced the 25-member Aging Readiness Task Force, which succeeded in fulfilling a clearly defined purpose.

“Sometimes in a larger board you get more energy,” Gray told commissioners.

Stuart said his only caution would be to make sure the group doesn’t split into subcommittees and end up requiring the same amount of time.

The pilot project, if proven successful, could be used as a model for other commission consolidation efforts, Gray said.

Since commissioners are big on public input, a “white paper” written in support of the pilot project worded the problem, as staffers see it, delicately: “The intent of steering committees, advisory boards, task forces and commissions is generally to provide an avenue for interested members of the community to provide input specific to a certain program, task or regulation. These efforts are well-intentioned, and the county strongly supports seeking public input on county programs, initiatives, tasks and regulations,” the paper read.

“However, over time, the number of these groups has increased, resulting in unclear missions, duplicating or overlapping tasks, obsolete goals, and an overall drain on staffing resources. Many of the mandates creating these advisory committees/boards/commissions were initiated in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and they are still ‘on the books’ and required per the county code. The task forces are frequently initiated as a result of a specific complaint or issue, and the effort to address the issue often appears to continue after a decision has been made addressing the problem,” the paper read.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.