"Guaranteed work for life." That sign could be hung on the front doors of Palo Alto's City Hall, courtesy of some of our council members.
Yes, there seems to be a mind-set of late that somehow the role of our council is to guarantee full lifetime employment for anyone working for the city.
Last week at the council's study session on the budget, several council members said they simply did not want to explore contracting out more of the city's park maintenance.
Contracting out would save the city $400,000 -- money that could be used to defray a $3 billion deficit or spent on needed road repairs. But Councilwoman LaDoris Cordell said she was absolutely opposed to the idea; Councilman Jack Morton said he was too because he wants the fields to look good. They were joined by council members Judy Kleinberg, Larry Klein and John Barton, who all expressed opposition to outsourcing park maintenance.
Seated in the council chambers were purple T-shirted SEIU (Service Employees International Union) members who objected to the outsourcing, saying they could do a better job than outside gardeners. Their presence apparently caused the council to backpedal, even though the reason for the meeting was to come up with budget cuts.
Ironically, half the park maintenance work is already contracted out, so the city knows it works. An inspection by City Auditor Sharon Erickson showed there was "no discernable difference. The quality was the same."
But the union is powerful in town, and it is flexing its muscle and even seeking resident support. Last weekend some residents found a flier in their mailbox from the union saying, "Palo Alto's clean and safe parks could be endangered by budget cuts. ... This proposal will create more problems for residents than it will solve, including serious safety issues and a decline in the quality of park maintenance."
Really? What kind of problems when we already know outsourcing works?
While no actual layoffs were on the table, the $400,000 translates into four full-time employees out of a work force of more than 1,100.
This no-outsourcing argument came up a couple of weeks ago when the council was discussing turning over the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo to a nonprofit organization. Some council members said they feared that such a turnover might result in a loss of 18 or so city jobs. Cordell, in fact, urged that any public-private partnership contain language that would "highlight the importance of keeping city employees rather than outsourcing or hiring new, cheaper staff."
I think we are developing a city policy that once someone starts working for the city, his or her job must be protected. In other words, city employees must never be laid off.
Is this what we want? Is this reality?
The number of city employees has been at the 1,100 level for a couple of years, despite budget deficits.
And we have more employees than most other cities, even those with double the number residents. Overall, there has been about a 1 percent drop the past year in Palo Alto in the total number of employees.
A recent research report published in The Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal (for whom I work in my day job) listed the employees per city.
City Population # of city employees State ranking
Palo Alto 58,598 1,079 13
Santa Clara 102,361 889 15
Fremont 210,445 884 16
Sunnyvale 131,760 881 17
Santa Cruz 54,593 731 20
San Mateo 92,482 583 22
Mountain View 70,708 578 23
Salinas 153,386 577 24
Redwood City 75,402 558 25
The numbers speak for themselves. Palo Alto has twice the number of employees as Redwood City, and two-thirds of the population. In fairness, Palo Alto does have its own Utilities Department, which counts for about 220 employees, although not all do exclusively utilities work.
Subtracting utilities workers would bring Palo Alto's total to 859, but our population is still much lower than other cities with approximately the same number of employees.
As a responsible employer, it's nice for the council to take care of employees -- but what if we don't need their services anymore? Or what if we find that we can deliver the same quality of service for less money? That's the issue here in terms of contracting out park maintenance.
What's more, with the skyrocketing cost of health and retirement benefits for city employees, Palo Alto has to become more efficient and streamlined in providing services, the same as any other employer. Our city simply cannot afford to pay out increasing wages and benefits to city workers and retain full employment.
We already know the city doesn't have enough money for street repairs, libraries and a new police station.
To maintain an attitude that all city employees are automatically entitled to keep their jobs is inappropriate. Such comments from council members also interfere with the city's ability to negotiate union contracts.
It is not our council's responsibility to make sure the city staff has lifetime employment and benefits. It is the council's responsibility to be sure our city is run in a fiscally responsible way and that our tax dollars are being spent properly.