Hawaii Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida “The County Is Not Traditional Business”

The following is from the Hawaii Corporation Counsel “Blog“:

In challenging economic times, a recurring question asked by many is, “Why isn’t the County run like a business?” There is some validity to this sentiment, although the County by virtue of the nature of services it provides does not fit within a traditional business model.

A positive work ethic is something valuable in both the private and public employment sectors, as is a desire to provide excellent customer service. In private business, poor customer service results in the customer not coming back and going elsewhere. For government services, the public does not have this choice, but government workers must nonetheless commit to providing the very best possible service. Here the golden rule should guide County employees: Do unto others as you have others do unto you.

In recent years, through the committed effort of the County’s Department of Human Resources, County employees have been afforded training in customer service. Department heads in the County have also taken the challenge and have committed to ensuring their employees demonstrate the highest level of courtesy and service to the public we serve. We recognize this is a work in progress, and the end result will not appear overnight. But through continued and vigilant emphasis, the County is working to provide customer service that will become the standard by which all other businesses may be measured. Is this an unrealistic ambition? For County employees, we are calling upon them to take on this challenge.

Unlike private business however, the County does not provide services based on a supply/demand model, or based on an individual’s ability to pay. When a member of our community is in distress and calls for an ambulance, they are served, no matter what their financial ability. The County paramedic doesn’t ask for a credit card or “cash only” before deciding whether to offer emergency medical services. The same goes for firefighters responding to a house fire, police responding to victims who need assistance, and the many other County services we all sometimes take for granted. If a true supply/demand model was part of government service, only the wealthy could afford those services related to life and health. This is why it is important for the County not to be run like a traditional business. This ensures the vast majority of our population who may not have the most financial wealth are guaranteed needed services.

Our Fire Department’s present practice in not seeking reimbursement for rescue expenses is an excellent example of this. Although the County has an ordinance in place that allows the County to seek reimbursement for expenses incurred by the County in performing search and rescue missions, the County rarely (if at all) seeks this reimbursement. The Fire Department believes seeking reimbursement would serve as a disincentive for persons and family members to call for assistance if someone is lost or in need of emergency assistance. Here the present Fire Department administration has made a commitment that the value of a human life should not be an economic decision.

When a private business faces an increase in operating costs, they can look to either reduce the size of their expenses or increase the cost of their product. The County also goes through this analysis when there is an increase in operating costs (many of which are outside the control of the County). After looking to reduce expenses, the only option left for the County is to (1) increase property taxes (the main source of revenue for the County), or (2) charge for services. As evidenced above, charging for basic services tends to prejudice and discriminate against those persons with limited financial means. Raising taxes is never politically popular, although necessary at times.

The present balanced budget submitted by Mayor Billy Kenoi to the Hawai‘i County Council takes all of the above into account. It reduced the size of government, maintained the present level of services being delivered to our citizens, does not include any provision for charging for individual services, and does not raise taxes. This budget has been described by many as “balanced and fair.” Looking at the alternatives discussed above, the fairness is enjoyed by everyone in our County, irrespective of financial means.

As ever, if you have any comments or questions on the above or any matter, please feel free to email our office at Lashida@co.hawaii.hi.us, or call me at (808) 961-8304, extension 118. This message was posted on May 3, 2009, at 4:50 p.m.

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