Mark Twain once said of life’s injustices, “No good deed goes unpunished.” That came to mind when I learned of Carlsbad’s plan to outsource jobs of city workers who sacrificed pay and benefits over the last several years to help the city survive the Great Recession. Carlsbad not only survived, it prospered on the backs of those worker bees.
The city council voted Tuesday night to seek bids from contractors to
outsource all parks maintenance services. A consulting firm was paid
$102,000 for a report claiming contractors could save the city $1.7 to
$3.68 million each year.
What’s wrong with this picture? Ninety-six percent of city residents
rate parks maintenance “good” or “excellent.” But city officials are now
ready to risk that level of citizen satisfaction by replacing those
responsible for it with lower-paid workers hired to enhance the
profitability of a private contractor.
The consultants compared Carlsbad’s yearly parks maintenance cost
per-acre, half of which is currently contracted out, with that of three
regional cities that outsource all landscaping services. Only one, at
$5,464 per acre, was lower than Carlsbad’s $6,572. The other two spent
$10,353 and $10,104.Unable to justify
privatizing on a cost per-acre basis, the consultants turned to the
average salary of a current city worker compared to that of a private
sector worker doing similar work.
The average salary of Carlsbad’s thirty-four full-time Maintenance II
workers is listed at $45,243, amounting to $22 an hour. But averages of
small numbers can be misleading. The salary of the 26-year Carlsbad
city employee pictured mowing the grass in a July 17 NCT article,
together with others of similar experience, could drive up the group
average substantially. Entry level pay is $39,193, or $19 an hour.
The average pay of a private sector employee with ten years
experience is listed at $32,567, or $16 an hour. That’s based on surveys
of regional salaries by national organizations. The consultants
combined average salaries of workers with the job titles “gardener” and
Averages of small group numbers with large variances is fuzzy math.
But combining averages of averages to compare to another average amounts
to math malpractice.
Although a private contractor can no doubt hire cheaper labor, the
consultants don’t explain how Carlsbad’s “overpaid” city workers are
able to deliver the same service at about half the price of contractors
in two out of three cities in its regional peer group.
The larger question is why is it urgent to cut costs now, with the
city sitting on a $53 million and growing budget surplus? Considering
the devastating impact on the lives of the four dozen loyal workers who
have provided remarkably good service, why risk the city’s natural
beauty by entrusting its care to a private contractor chasing a buck?
As one city worker told me, “Comparisons between our employees and
outside contractors never, ever have taken into consideration the
importance of the small things we experience every day, seeing the same
faces, the “good mornings,” listening to their concerns, etc. We’re
there every day to make Carlsbad as fine a place as you’d want. You
would never get that from a contractor who, if you’re lucky, comes once a
The council vote to seek bids from contractors was unanimous, but
Councilman Keith Blackburn’s vote was the most reluctant. After
describing the value of city workers in words like those above,
Blackburn agreed to call for bids but declared the cost savings would
have to be “huge” to get his vote to approve an outsourcing contract.
What it comes down to is that city officials need to include
opportunity costs in their analysis of outsourcing. Do potential
benefits outweigh the risks of less attractive parks, downtown and
beaches and the morale of city workers who’ve earned high praise from
those they serve but are told by their bosses their jobs are expendable?