AREA NEWSThe Putnam Examiner

Putnam Debates Consolidation of Highway and Planning

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Legislators Dini LoBue, Anthony DiCarlo and Sam Oliverio listen to Fred Pena, the newly appointed highway commissioner, as he proposes consolidating the highway and planning departments.

A new plan to combine Putnam County’s highway and planning departments to cut costs and boost efficiency was met with skepticism by the legislature’s special personnel committee.

The switch, which would eliminate several currently unfilled positions and save about  $70,000, was proposed by Fred Pena, the county’s newly appointed highway commissioner.

Pena said the move would improve communication between the two departments and ensure that implementation challenges are properly worked through in the planning stages of different county projects.

“There’s a natural relationship between planning and facilities,” he said. “You don’t want to have a disconnect there.”

Pena said he worked on the proposal with Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell and Deputy County Executive Bruce Walker.

The three legislators on the special personnel committee — chairman Anthony DiCarlo, Sam Oliverio and Dini LoBue — told Pena they had qualms about the necessity and practicality of the project.

Oliverio said the consolidation would make Putnam County’s system of checks and balances less robust.

He called the plan “very reckless.”

“This thing reeks of something, and I don’t know exactly what it is. But I am so uncomfortable with this,” Oliverio said. “The thing that troubles me about this is that we’re putting planning — a department that has stood independent, really as a watchdog of the county — under the auspices of highway. And I think that’s backwards.”

LoBue said she’s worried about the ability of Pena, who’s new to the highway commissioner position, to immediately handle and oversee such a comprehensive overhaul.

“I would feel so much more comfortable if you were here two years and this was 2014 and you sat down and said, ‘I have two years under my belt running the highway,’ ” LoBue said. “I’m very concerned about you coming in here brand-new. You are coming in to a department that has had so many issues.”

LoBue also said the cost savings the new plan would produce were not large enough to justify the switch.

“To me, that’s inconsequential. It’s nothing,” LoBue said of the proposed net savings of $69,000.

DiCarlo told Pena that the plan’s success must be able to be measured.

“It’s all about data, comparison. So what about the old system didn’t work well?” DiCarlo said. “There needs to be more specifics — what specifically are the benefits from doing this? By doing this, what’s going to make the job better and what’s going to make the enhancements under planning and highway under your supervision better for the county?”

DiCarlo called the committee meeting a “fact-finding” exercise and urged Pena to return with more specifics.

When pressed by the legislators for details on how the success of any potential future combination of the two departments would be measured, Pena acknowledged that the plan needed to be more fully fleshed out before any decision was made to move forward.

“We thought this was a good first step — however, more detail is appropriate,” Pena said in an interview after the meeting.

The committee voted to table the measure, and Pena said he plans to return to them at a future meeting with a more detailed proposal.

At the meeting, new 2012 salaries for county employees were also approved.

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