- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

Fairfax County, Virginia and Arizona's Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, do the best job of managing tax dollars and dodging political bullets, according to a report released last week.

They received the top grades of A-minus. Montgomery and Prince George's counties finished high in the scoring.

Most of the nation's largest counties struggle to manage the tasks of government, stymied by having too little control over their finances and being caught politically between states and cities, the report found.

The Government Performance Project, a collaboration of Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and Governing magazine, conducted the study.

After examining the operations of 40 of the nation's largest counties, the study found that significant problems vexed a majority, with 55 percent receiving poor grades.

The report said county governments were hampered by fragmented control over revenue, poor organizational structures and obsolete state laws.

"They are squeezed by government above and below them. They don't have a whole lot of control over their management, as they would like to," said Dale Jones, the project director.

On one side, county executives and lawmakers are subject to state laws and, especially during the current recession, state budget cuts, Mr. Jones said.

On the other, they must try to coordinate with municipal governments, and with other county officials who often are elected separately like county sheriffs or clerks and don't feel obliged to work in concert.

"They really do feel caught in the middle," he said.

Counties fared worse than cities and states in how they managed their government tasks, the report concluded. In the past three years, the project studied management in state and city governments.

The counties that performed the worst were Nassau County on New York's Long Island, where a fiscal crisis forced the state to step in with relief, and Allegheny County, Pa., home to Pittsburgh.

The project divided the nation into four geographic regions and selected the largest counties based on revenue. Counties responded to a survey, and the project also analyzed finances and operations, and interviewed officials.

The study found that financial reporting and accounting were relatively strong, and that most counties did a good job overseeing budgets. Overall, counties were given a B-minus for managing finances and infrastructure such as parks and sewers.

The study gave poorer grades, overall, for management of human resources and information technology.

In some cases, the report found examples of innovation that could become models for other counties. It cited Minnesota's Hennepin County for a telecommuting experiment that increased the caseload production of economic-assistance workers, and King County, Wash., for the sophisticated model it used to assess the need for capital improvements.


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