A more efficient DHEC good for SC, taxpayers

info@islandpacket.comJanuary 10, 2013 

An agency as sprawling as the state Department of Health and Environmental Control was ripe for cost-cutting and greater efficiencies, and its new director has sought to deliver both.

Catherine Templeton's efforts so far appear to be paying off. Templeton has consolidated regional offices, reduced the number of managers and generally looked for ways to rid DHEC of "independent, repetitive and redundant levels of management and bureaucracy."

As long as the agency's core missions of protecting our health and environment are not compromised, Templeton should be applauded for her work. The key is to ensure that saving taxpayers' money does not put vital resources or the public's health at risk. But an efficient agency that emphasizes front-line work rather than bureaucracy ought to be better able to accomplish its goals.

On Friday, Templeton announced she was eliminating 45 positions, some of them division managers, in her latest round of reorganization. The agency is cutting the number of regional districts from eight to four and centralizing many programs, such as personnel and information technology, The (Columbia) State newspaper reported. She also announced that the agency would be hiring 68 people, but would still see $2 million in savings even with the new hires. The idea is to reduce management and increase front-line workers.

And she has put one person in charge of programs that issue environmental permits. Elizabeth Dieck, a former DHEC coastal division attorney, now oversees the coastal permitting section and the agency's main section in Columbia. Coastal division director Carolyn Boltin-Kelly now reports to Dieck.

The coastal division, which operates under the 1977 Coastal Management Act, was once an independent agency. It was folded into DHEC as part of restructuring in the early 1990s. Coastal agency supporters pushed then to put it on equal footing with the agency's main environmental division. Templeton and Dieck should work to ensure that coastal environmental issues do not get shorter shrift with this move. The environmental issues here require specific attention and sensitivity.

Interestingly, one of Templeton's first moves after taking over the job last March was to add four high-level, highly paid advisors. DHEC has more than 3,000 employees, but that's down from about 5,000 a few years ago. In defending the move, Templeton said they would look for ways to reorganize the agency and improve its efficiency.

But she also said during her Senate confirmation hearing that she had no plans to get rid of workers at DHEC, noting then that the agency was about 500 workers short.

"The DHEC workforce is more scientifically trained,'' she told senators. "I've got no plans to terminate anybody right now."

Time on the job apparently changed that view.

And even as Templeton announced changes that she says will reap $2 million in savings, she has asked for $4 million in additional funding for the next fiscal year. She said the money would be used to address unfunded mandates, enforce air pollution regulations and improve the agency's inspection programs for health facilities and ambulances.

It's time for Templeton to lay out her long-term plans for DHEC so that the public understands where this important agency is headed and can put these individual moves in better context.

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