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As a group, government contractors are like preschoolers at cookie time — you can’t count on them to behave without a lot of monitoring. Turn your back and they grab more than their share and make a mess.

The well-known examples start with Halliburton and its subsidiaries fleecing American taxpayers again and again with vastly overpriced and substandard services to the troops in Iraq. Then wounded troops ended up mistreated by the contractor hired to run Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The list goes on. A long record of contractor untrustworthiness has accumulated in cities and states across the country. Studies from Maine to San Diego have documented these and many other examples:

A Metrolink train crashed in Los Angeles this month, killing 25 people, when an engineer employed by a contractor ran a red signal. Investigators are focusing on fatigue as the likely cause; the engineer was working back-to-back split shifts from pre-dawn to 9 p.m.

In Boston’s notorious “Big Dig” tunnel project, Bechtel Corp. was largely responsible for overseeing itself. A motorist was killed in 2006 when chunks of the tunnel ceiling fell off because the company had used inferior bolts and adhesive, while charging 6 times its original bid.

The contractor who’d been given the job of determining eligibility for public assistance in Texas also raised costs, and mistakenly dropped 30,000 children from a federally funded health insurance program.

In San Diego, a man was electrocuted at a bus stop because a contractor had miswired a street light and connected it to the metal bench. This is the most lethal in a string of cases of sloppy or inept work by contractors in San Diego.

None of this should come as a surprise. Contractors are in business to make money, not to serve the public, and they make more money the more they trim their expenses. The easiest way to do that: keep pay low and forget about health coverage and other benefits. The predictable result is a dispirited, inexperienced workforce with high turnover — and that in turn means lower quality services.

So the community pays double. Besides the deterioration of services, workers who are uninsured and make poverty wages often have to rely on publicly funded programs, they contribute less in taxes to the public revenue, and they have little to spend in the local economy.

What’s a city to do? Monitor. Regulate. Set strong penalties and enforce them.

The Center on Policy Initiatives has developed a set of proposals for strengthening enforcement of San Diego’s living wage law and protecting workers who complain of violations. We expect a City Council vote in a couple of weeks.

— SUSAN DUERKSEN

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