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Editorial: Say no to Kearns' brazen plan to add 11 employees

We’d put it down to the inexperience of the new county clerk, except that Michael P. Kearns has been in politics a long time. He should know better.

Kearns won election as Erie County Clerk last November and this week, barely three months into the job, is proposing an end run around normal democratic systems in a brazen effort to add 11 people to his staff. County leaders need to block him and insist on two fundamental changes in his approach:

• First, he needs to follow the same procedures as all county departments do when they want to hire more staff. That includes review and debate, which help protect the public against unnecessary expenses.

• Second, and even more critically, he needs to be in the business of modernizing his office, not reflexively adding costs. It’s time to take the plunge and go digital.

Kearns is hoping to raid $338,000 from a restricted trust fund in order to meet an expected surge in residents needing to renew their driver's licenses. The county has only one bureau with Saturday hours. He wants to add another in an effort to relieve congestion at the offices.

The problem appears to be legitimate. Kearns and other county officials have an obligation to respond to it. But not this way.

He wants county legislators to allow him to siphon funds from a $1.5 million county trust that exists solely to create new revenue for taxpayers by investing idle funds. It’s not a slush fund for the clerk or any other public officials to raid because they can’t be bothered adhering to the processes of democratic government.

Perhaps Kearns has spent too much time in Albany where, until his election as clerk, he was a state assemblyman. There, politicians like nothing more than to evade the rules. It needs to be different here.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has called Kearns on his maneuver. “If the clerk wishes to significantly increase his staff he should submit such submission as part of the annual budget process, starting for the 2019 budget year.”

That’s the system. It exists for a reason. Large expenses – especially recurring ones – should be subject to critical evaluation and approved only when they are absolutely necessary. Kearns may have a good case to make, with the numbers of license renewals expected to more than triple over the coming four years, but he needs to make it the appropriate way. Not the Albany way. It’s not a member item.

But there’s more to it than just seeking to evade the traditional mechanisms of accountability. Kearns is seeking to solve his problem the 20th century way – by adding man-hours that will weigh on the public for decades to come. Instead, he needs to be modernizing his office with more self-service kiosks and other web-based approaches.

That’s the way of the future. Fast-food restaurants already have kiosks that speed customer service and reduce company expenses. It’s true that government can’t always act like a business, but this is one way that it can – and should. Public offices are no more immune to the need to stay technologically current than any other enterprise – not if they want to respect the taxpayers who fund them anyway.

The office began that transition under former County Clerk Chris Jacobs. This is Kearns’ opportunity to build on it in ways that leverage technology and keep public costs under control.

If the Democrats who just won control of the Erie County Legislature want to show taxpayers whose side they are on, they will reject this maneuver and send Kearns away with instructions to respect democratic systems and to do better at dealing with the challenges of his office.

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