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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

City's War on Workers

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 “groundskeeper.”

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 week.”

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?

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