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WI: War on waste saving taxpayers millions, report finds

By   /   July 31, 2012  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — Payroll stubs can really add up.

Going stubless, so to speak, in 10 state departments is saving taxpayers more than $100,000 per year, according to data from a panel charged with attacking waste in state government.

If another seven agencies and many more boards tied to the state Department of Administration’s central payroll system — including DOA – go paperless, taxpayers would save an additional $13,800 per year.

The transition to a predominantly paperless bureaucracy is expected to pay big dividends for a $2 billion state payroll, excluding the University of Wisconsin System.

The Waste, Fraud and Abuse Elimination Task Force is working to end unnecessary spending one stub at a time – among a long list of cost-saving initiatives.

And the panel, led by state agents in multiple state departments, is banking on the public’s help in saving the state millions of dollars, according to the task force’s latest quarterly report.

The report doesn’t specify the total savings generated to date, but an earlier bipartisan Commission on Waste, Fraud and Abuse outlined its recommendations to annually save state and local governments $455 million.

“We have already begun to implement some of the commission’s recommendations and these reforms have saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars,” said Gov. Scott Walker in the quarterly report’s opening letter. Walker created the task force this year to oversee progress in the waste, fraud and abuse war.

Changing overtime

Among the more impactful, if not initially controversial, cost reductions involve overtime pay at the state Department of Corrections.

Act 10, the Walker-led law that stripped collective bargaining for most public employees, allowed the DOC to change the rules of the game in overtime. Doing so saved the agency and the taxpayers who fund it some $2.1 million in the latest quarter, which ended June 30, according to the task force. That’s a decline of nearly 90 percent.

Before Act 10, corrections workers with the most seniority and, consequently, the highest pay grades got first crack at overtime in accordance with union contracts. Corrections staff also could pick up overtime on vacation or sick time. Reports showed some employees racking up big paychecks by taking time off and then picking up extra shifts.

As of January, DOC facilities provide overtime on a rotating basis, and hours off work can no longer be counted toward time-and-a-half.

“That allows us to bring down our average cost of overtime, based on the common assumption that more people across the spectrum will accept it,” said Dennis Schuh, executive assistant for Corrections and a member of the waste elimination task force.

Beyond the savings, Schuh said the issue boiled down to a sense of fairness. Under the old union-negotiated contracts, corrections officers with less time would generally get stuck with the hours nobody wanted to work.

The changes didn’t sit well with senior guards, and Schuh said there’s still a fair amount of grousing.

“As you might expect, people who are more senior feel some of the things they’ve earned by their long service are being taken away from them,” he said, asserting the department aims to balance the fair treatment of employees with what is in the best interest of the people who pay their wages – taxpayers.

It appears the state Department of Health Services is following suit, with overtime costs declining 18 percent in April from the same month in 2011.

Lean times

Perhaps the area of most sustained impact is in the Wisconsin Lean Government Initiative, created through the governor’s Executive Order #66. Lean methods are the constant pursuit of efficiencies and the elimination of wasteful spending.

All cabinet agencies are required to begin implementing a coordinated lean program.

Lean initiatives typically have been the domain of the private sector. Toyota, experts say, pioneered lean production methods in the 1930s. In Wisconsin, health care provider ThedaCare has, since 2003, removed more than $23 million in costs without layoffs and while improving care, the task force report notes.

Lean processes are showing up in some state governments. Iowa has dramatically cut time and costs for air quality permits, from 62 days to six, and Connecticut’s labor department has saved more than $500,000 in staff time, and another $1.27 million in a workforce initiative, according to the states.

Critics of public efficiency programs raise concerns that quickening the pace of regulation in particular diminishes public oversight and increases environmental and consumer problems. Proponents argue the streamlined processes cut out unnecessary duplication of service.

There’s talk of bringing lean master companies into state agencies to show them how it’s done.

An eye on fraud

The creation of the Office of Inspector General has targeted fraud in the state’s social service programs, saving taxpayers some $2.5 million between March and June, and recouping more than $1.7 million in fraudulent benefits, according to the task force.

Public employees and residents are driving cost-saving ideas, too, submitting 22 suggestions for combating waste, fraud and abuse in state government.

Among the ideas:

  • A state employee suggested Wisconsin issue paychecks on a monthly basis rather than every two weeks, potentially saving the state tens of thousands of dollars per year.
  • A businessman suggested the state Department of Finance’s Division of Corporate and Consumer Services reduce the required Corporate Annual report from every year to every two years, a move that would most certainly help with costs and paperwork for businesses but may raise concerns about oversight.