County Judge, Veronica Escobar

  • City, county get serious about consolidation Shared services
            could include school systems and more agencies
  • By David Crowder
  • Since the 1980s, candidates in El Paso have campaigned for city-county consolidation, making promises they couldn’t keep or didn’t try.

    Now, apart from politics and largely without the involvement of elected officials, the two governments are talking about a new partnership that would put the county’s information technology director and management in charge of the city’s IT department.

    That is only one piece of the larger partnerships and consolidations being discussed that could involve the city, county, El Paso Community College and one or more school districts.

    “Nothing’s approved yet,” Deputy El Paso City Manager Pat Adauto said. “But we’re also working on regional planning and economic development and a regional park system.”

    She said planning, economic development, parks and IT are the most critical areas, and there are meetings going on there.

    “But there are other things, like shared libraries and purchasing agreements that could include the school districts and all taxing entities,” Adauto said.

    It is a move toward service consolidations and partnerships among local governments on a scale that that no one talked about until last year.

    “This all resulted from the shared services summit the county had last year,” Adauto said of the widely ignored gathering of local government executives and managers that El Paso County Commissioner Veronica Escobar organized last November.

    Second summit
    A second summit, facilitated by Thomas Walker of Gov. Rick Perry’s Office of Economic Development, was conducted Friday in El Paso and focused exclusively on human resources issues, specifically training, hiring procedures and benefits.

    Participating were eight school districts, all of the incorporated cities and towns in the county, the Rio Grande Council of Governments and University Medical Center.

    As the city and county are hammering out an agreement to put county IT director Peter Cooper and his top four managers in charge of the city’s computer systems, the county and El Paso Community College are also working on the development of a shared data center where computer and digital records would be backed up and stored.

    “The city might join us on that data center,” Escobar said.

    El Paso’s city and county governments don’t have a great history of getting along in joint ventures.

    There is the highly successful consolidated city tax office, which handles property tax billings and collections for the county and 25 other taxing jurisdictions in the county.

    It has stood up since the mid 1980s and is a model that other communities have copied.

    Going interlocal
    Originally, that interlocal agreement was the result of a close working relationship between then Mayor Jonathan Rogers and County Judge Pat O’Rourke – the late father of city Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

    Having one consolidated tax statement going to the owners of 350,000 properties has saved local governments millions of tax dollars in mailing costs alone, not to mention the saved administrative costs over the last 20 years.

    But the City-County Health and Environmental District, originally established in the 1930s, was dismantled two years ago after years of city-county squabbling over money, control and accountability.

    Before that, a city-county tourism promotion operation broke down in the 1990s, as did the City-County Consolidated Data Processing Department.

    “There’s no disputing the fact that there have been more failures than successes,” Escobar said.

    But she thinks that’s no reason to stop trying, and she finds a lesson in each one of those failures.

    “Why, for instance, would we build three buildings for data centers when you can collaborate on one?” she asked. “On our end, we’re going to save millions of dollars if this happens.”

    Adauto said the ongoing discussion of consolidated and shared services also includes the possible merger of the police and Sheriff’s Department training academies, crime scene and crime laboratories, SWAT and records management.

    “In some areas, consolidated services are what make sense,” Adauto said. “We are looking at areas that are the most expedient and where we can get the biggest bang for the buck. Those are the areas we are now prioritizing, because I think if we have quick results, it will encourage us to press forward with other consolidation efforts.”

    The idea of linking the management of the city and county information technology departments was raised by a consultant the city hired, but the idea was opposed by the city’s former IT director.

    In September, the city dismissed the top three people in its $11.5-million, 66-person IT Department, and that is when the discussions began.

    “The city manager approached the county after their top management left and asked if we would consider management of their IT Department,” Cooper said. “Commissioners Court voted unanimously to start negotiations two and a half months ago.”

    A draft agreement is being worked out by the city and county attorneys’ offices.

    “Then, we’re going to look at consolidating certain aspects of both operations,” Cooper said. “We might consider consolidating the help desks.

    Cooper pointed to several existing areas of shared IT services: the police and sheriff’s department records management system, the finger print system, the summons system and municipal court is on a shared county server.

    While the city would compensate the county for Cooper’s time, he would not receive extra pay for managing the city department.

    Why not?

    “You’re not the first one to ask,” Cooper said. “But it’s the right thing to do for us to combine forces and eventually look at further consolidation in the future.”

    Cooper, who has managed the county department for nine years and is paid $155,000 a year, said, “That’s enough.”

    So should we expect the City of El Paso and the County of El Paso to merge into one super-sized governmental body soon?

    Uh, no. There’s no provision in Texas state law for counties and cities to merge, but services can be consolidated under legal agreements.

  • County Judge
    Veronica Escobar