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Living in San Carlos March 16, 2010

If Outsourcing is “The Right Path” for San Carlos, Why Stop at Public Safety?

by Chuck Gillooley

“A Paradigm Shift”

In last week’s press release in which he formally unveiled his preference to outsource the Police, Fire, and Park Maintenance services, San Carlos City Manager Mark Weiss spoke of a need to change the way we provide services in the future:

“What I am proposing in this year’s budget is a paradigm shift in how we view City services in San Carlos.  Rather than continue to attempt to provide the full range of City services mostly in-house, I believe it is time to accelerate the use of contract services in several areas in an effort to improve efficiency and take advantage of economies of scale, while embracing a regional service delivery model.”

There has been quite a bit of discussion on this site already about two of the proposals that are on the table right now. But setting aside the specifics of these proposals for a moment, and focusing instead on the general concept behind this paradigm shift, the question begs to be asked:

Why Not Other Departments?

If you take a quick look at how the City of San Carlos is organized and which services the City currently provides in-house, you start to see that there are a number of other services that could also be potentially handled by an outside agency.  San Mateo County already has a Building Department, a Planning Department,  and probably a Housing Department — Emerald Hills, and other communities in the County utilize these resources already.  The County also has the infrastructure to handle Administration and Payroll, and I would imagine that their benefits package is more cost-effective simply due to the economies of scale.  And the list goes on…

Now before you fire up the hate mail, understand that I have the utmost respect for the professionals that currently serve these roles in San Carlos (just as I do our Police and Fire Departments.)  I call on them quite often for information and clarification on building codes,  or an update on what’s happening on Wheeler Plaza, etc..    I have spoken with several council members who refer to this group as “the brains behind the operation”, and I totally concur.  I’m not suggesting for a nanosecond that we remove a single one of them.

But in the spirit of “the same or better service” mantra that’s being repeated regarding the Fire and Police proposals on the table, couldn’t the same “paradigm shift” be applied to other departments achieve additional cost savings to the City of San Carlos?

Of Course Not.

There are probably a hundred reasons one could envision for not doing this — and the top of the list would be that  wouldn’t want to risk losing the Al Savay’s, or Mark Sawicki’s, or Deborah Nelson’s or, Chris Valley’s that we have already…although one could apply the same argument that working for a larger organization provides more career opportunities — you know, the same carrot that we’re dangling in front of our police force right now.  But then shouldn’t we have the same concern about losing our Police Commanders, Detectives,  Fire Captains, and Engineers?

Is it really fair to apply this “paradigm shift” to only a select few departments in the City of San Carlos?  Sure, public safety accounts for about 57% of our current budget.  But what about the other 43%?   With such dramatic savings being touted by outsourcing Fire and Police, couldn’t some additional savings be achieved by applying this principle across the board?

Maybe that way, we could bring back a live receptionist at City Hall.  Or staff an additional officer during our peak hours.  Or put a fourth firefighter on our rigs?

What Does it Say if We Don’t?

Perhaps there are no savings to be gained by further outsourcing.  But if we proceed down our current path of just outsourcing Public Safety, what does that say about our value system?  Is it right that we apply a different yardstick to one department, and not another?   What keeps coming back to me are the following two thoughts:

  1. Either our City Manager views Public Safety as a commodity, even though he states otherwise.  Or,
  2. If we can’t apply the same model across the board, maybe outsourcing isn’t the right solution after all.

What are your thoughts?
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If Outsourcing is "The Right Path" for San Carlos, Why Stop at Public Safety?, 2.5 out of 5 based on 8 ratings
Comments 21
  • speaking of public safety, anyone know the story behind the mysterious private jet thats been criss-crossing over san carlos NON STOP over the last few days? starting to get annoying and i worry about our safety….

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    • No kidding. I have watched it pass over about 10 times today, and it is getting really annoying.

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      • Chuck: Julie is right, there’s something weird about this jet. It’s flown over my house 4 times in the last hour. Larry Ellison? Google? CIA? Who do we contact to find out more or complain? FAA? SC airport? All of my neighbors are talking about it. The noise is annoying and it’s making everyone nervous.

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        • To find out about flights such as the jet you are writing about, contact the SFO Noise Abatement office of the SFO Airport Community Roundtable. Don’t know the web address off hand, but if you search SFO Fly Quiet Program I think you’ll come up with it.

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    • OK folks…I have the answer, courtesy of the San Carlos airport:

      The plane that has been flying overhead nonstop the past several days is an FAA Lear Jet that is checking the aviation instrument measurements and settings for the flight approach to SFO. They were supposed to be done yesterday, but they seem to be continuing into this afternoon.

      Hope that helps…

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      • Thanks Chuck for your service to our community and for once again for getting us the straight answer on this issue. But the conspiracy theorist in me thinks the airport’s answer is much too tidy. I’m sticking with the CIA spyplane snooping on unsuspecting citizens….

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  • Chuck

    good report on interesting important question.

    if San Carlos is going to outsource some services, then why do we need a full-time City Manager, for example? and you are right to ask why not go all the way? we both have mentioned disincorporation in connection with outsource – it is kind of the logical extension to completion of the idea currently on the table.

    so that is a reasonable question/position.

    my gut feeling is that we should try to keep the City intact – that the move to outsource would be difficult to return from.

    and things are very chaotic in government right now so that the without firm contribution comittments from State and Federal governments, it is very difficult to plan. things could look better two or three years from now, hopefully economy will be better, and that could make a difference.

    seems to me out-sourcing might be the easiest financially in the short-term but perhaps more costly in the long run???
    not sure, just asking the question…..

    so i don’t think we should jump to make a decision on this…

    city council was elected by residents to look after the interests of the city/community….to study and research the issues..and to pick best course of action…and so ultimately the council will decide…i have no idea what the decision will be or what it should be…very tough issues….

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  • Chuck,
    Another great article. My husband and I were discussing this last night and believe that it makes more sense to outsource departments not directly related to public safety. The people making decisions on those areas should be as closely linked to the community as possible and by removing the direct ties to the city, we put those life saving resources another step away from those they are meant to serve.

    Whereas, it really doesn’t put our lives at risk if we have to go to San Mateo, RWC or wherever to get a building permit, etc. If outsourcing is the answer, let’s start with the some of the folks who are not responsible for saving our lives.

    It is disconcerting that the major cuts the city keeps proposing are from the most important services provided (education and safety) … will there be big cuts in administrative costs? Maybe we should reduce the size of the city council or some of the committees. Just a thought.

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    • Thanks for your comment. That was the whole point of my post — it’s baffling to me how we only put the burden of outsourcing 100% on the shoulders of our police and fire departments. If this is truly the new paradigm for San Carlos, we need to embrace it 100% or not at all.

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      • Chuck,
        Are you forgetting that part of the outsourcing plan is to outsource Parks & Maintenance staff? Also, the city is looking at contracting out for HR/Payroll and IT. The city also currently has planners on staff who are contracted out. We also had a much larger contract staff pre-2005 but Councilman Grocott advocated for hiring staff instead. Do your research before you talk about 100% on the shoulders of Police and Fire. Also, police and Fire are the only departments that are growing at a rapid rate. We could outsource every other department and not see the savings we are seeing in Police and Fire. I thought you have said that you post your blog to inform people, not to advocate for a certain position? Sounds like you are advocating without relaying all the facts.

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        • Frustrated,

          I am not forgetting about Parks and Maintenance. I call them out by name if the very first sentence of the post. However, if you read the City Manager’s press release and the accompanying Council Agenda notes, the projected savings by outsourcing Park and Rec is $400K (using their best-case numbers.) The equivalent figure for police and fire is $5.5M. If we take out the placeholder for “parking meters” for now, since it doesn’t impact headcount, the total savings between the outsourcing Police, Fire and Park and Rec is $5.9M. So the burden on Police and Fire is 93% of the total, not 100%. So I will plead guilty of a metaphorical stretch with the phrase “100% on the shoulders of Police and Fire.” It will now be “93% on the shoulders of Police and Fire.”

          But does that really change anything?

          Regarding Payroll and IT — this is copied verbatim from his press release:

          “The City’s Proposed Budget for 2010-11 features “two paths” to a balanced budget. The recommended path involves City Council authorization for the City Manager and City Department Heads to prepare service agreements for receiving Police and Fire services from neighboring agencies and to explore contracting for parks maintenance services.

          This option is projected to save the City approximately $5 Million or more per year and would cover the City’s budget deficit without necessitating additional cuts to City services.”

          If you read the same Council summary of the “preferred option” there is no mention I can see of Payroll, IT, or any other departmental cuts for that matter. The whole reason the City Manager favors this option is for that very reason. However, if I’m missing something, I will gladly stand corrected.

          Final note — I’m not “advocating a position” in this post. I simply asked this question — if outsourcing is the “new paradigm” for City Government, why are we only selectively applying that paradigm? And to that question, I still haven’t heard an answer.

          Thanks for your comments,

          CG

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          • Chuck,
            It could be because there is only 24 hrs in a day, and the staff is working incredibly hard on just these proposals. You are a realtor, if someone comes up to you and gives you a choice to sell two homes, but you only have enough time to sell one. Do you pick the home that will give you a commission of 100k or the home that will make you 5 million? Depleted staff = less man hours = less time to do all the work. It doesn’t take a giant leap to realize that they may be tackling the big fish first.

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          • OK, fair argument. Let me counter with this:

            1.) Is this budget crisis a “new” issue? Did it just fall in their lap? No — they have known exactly what was at stake even before the Measure U went down — and that was last year. That datapoint is from the City Council, not from me. So I don’t buy the “we don’t have enough time to look at it” excuse.
            2.) Look at exactly what proposals? As of this afternoon, the proposal that has been posted online since last week is the only document that they have received to date from the Sheriff’s Dept. And that’s directly from the PD. I don’t think Cal Fire has presented a much more detailed proposal yet either.
            3.) Let’s talk about the size of the fish. “Public Safety” accounts for about 57% of the budget, depending on who you talk to. I’ll even give you 60% for the sake of this discussion. So the other half of the budget is 40%. Is that the same as comparing a $5M number to a $100K? I don’t think so. By my math one is 60% and the other is 98%. If public safety accounted for 98% of our budget, you and I would be in total agreement.

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          • None of this is new. Mark Weiss has been talking about it since last summer, but he doesn’t give the Council anything to discuss/consider until he can say there’s no time to look into alternatives.

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        • It’s a mistake to say that I advocated for employees over contractors. There were three things I called for changing. 1) Not allowing a person to leave the city as an employee on Friday and come back on Monday as a contractor without even a hint of a competitive process; 2) prohibit contractors from serving as department heads and being treated like staff with a full time office, a designated parking space, support staff, etc.; 3) don’t get in bed with contractors by continually using the same and never putting them back out to a competitive process. There’s no doubt, however, that there can be savings realized by using contractor instead of employees in certain functions. Added bonus is the city is more nimble to the economy and demand for service because contracts can be such that ramping up or down can be done quickly.

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  • Chuck,
    You are correct on a couple of your arguments. There is only two proposals, but the staff has been asking neighboring municipalities since December. My reference between 100k and 5 million was more at the contract level. Each outsourced department requires another contract that takes a great deal of time. If we outsource IT, what do we save, 25-75k? But our staff has to spend time writing and negotiating the contract, time they should be working on the big ticket items. The 3 big items in the City’s budget are fire, police, and parks and rec. All are being looked at for outsourcing saving around $5 million dollars. Only two of the three pull on overtime which outsourcing helps address. Parks and Rec also brings in a good deal of money, helping to trim their budget. It is true that this problem isn’t new, but neither is the solution. 5 years ago we had a CDF proposal and the council backed down and stuck with Belmont. Due to that lack of political courage we now pay for more than our fair share of the Fire JPA. The council has changed now and it looks like we atleast have two members who are using business sense when it comes to government. We also have two others who are so loyal to the Firefighters that they are willing to give them whatever they want and sell the rest of the city down the river.

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    • Good points. Our history, particularly on the Fire side of the equation, has understandably made other communities reluctant to partner with us. And it looks like we’re paying that price now.

      There’s obviously quite a bit more research that needs to be done (or disclosed, if it has been done already) about the impact of outsourcing other departments. But the bottom line is that it probably doesn’t matter anyway, because the vote on outsourcing the big-3 will happen in about 60 days. Not much time left to consider other options, that’s for sure. Which leads me (and many others I have spoken with) wondering why the Sheriff’s proposal came up so late in the discussion. Mark Weiss has quite a bit of experience with outsourcing, as his resume has been dutifully outlined by readers of this blog. From what I gather from the PD, the initial proposal isn’t so detailed that someone couldn’t have knocked it out over a few days or maybe weeks. So I can’t help but wonder about the timing of this whole “preferred path.” It’s announced on a Friday at 5:00PM (very odd timing for such an important press release) and only a little more than two months from the final vote. If we truly solicited proposals from other departments back in December, did it really take 3 months for the Sheriff’s department to deliver us that?

      I’m trying very hard to keep an open mind, but something just doesn’t add up here.

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      • Chuck,
        Those are some good points. Feels a bit rushed. The only thing I could say to counter is that the Council gave staff direction in the middle of December. So let’s knock out the holidays because City Staff goes on furlough. So they started on this in January let’s give the Sherriff two weeks, so really mid January. It was released in the beginning of March when budget season started. Probably shouldn’t have taken 6 weeks to put together, but without a budget it would seem out of place. The budget takes months to put together, so I think that may have been the hold up. But I could be wrong on that. Also, the City Manager released the proposal on a Friday, days before he normally releases Council packets. But instead of being thankful for the extra time, everyone is suspect.

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  • Is there anything that we can do to affect the decision for oursourcing the police department?

    Thanks,
    Irene

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    • Irene,

      Thanks for your comment. I would recommend emailing everyone of the Council members and let them know how you feel. I don’t know if it will make a difference, but it’s the right first step. And keep coming to the meetings to voice your opinion.

      Chuck

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