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Thursday, January 29, 2009 | The San Diego city government — like other public agencies, businesses and families across the region — is facing new financial challenges with the downturn in the economy. But unlike many others who are just now suffering, financial problems at City Hall are nothing new, nor are the sacrifices that employees have made to weather the fiscal troubles.

To save the city $22 million on its future annual payments to the retirement system, workers agreed last year to one of the skimpiest pension plans in the state for all newly hired employees. No city employees receive credit toward Social Security for their work. All employees face increased workloads with every round of layoffs and have frequently forgone pay raises. San Diego city employees typically pay more toward their retirement and earn less pay than their counterparts in other public agencies.

Those concessions are mocked by sensationalists, but they have a powerful impact on the livelihoods of these workers, as they would be for any San Diego family.

Compounded by the national economic crisis, city budget cuts appear to be heading toward more shaky ground that will touch more San Diegans than just our employees.

We have consistently argued that San Diego is a low-tax, low-revenue city with rates that are out of step with other cities in the county and the state. However, it will take leadership from all corners of the civic dialogue to lift those realities beyond the ideologically opposed and into serious discussion.

Instead, with the encouragement of Councilman Tony Young, we will be presenting other ideas for savings to the Budget and Finance Committee today in hope of minimizing the anticipated $50 million deficit for 2009-10 on city services.

First and foremost, we believe that the city should look at its work force with an eye toward the employees who are performing the actual services residents enjoy: fire protection, street sweeping, removing trash, filling potholes, law enforcement, maintaining parks, operating recreation centers and libraries, and so on. 

By eliminating some of the layers of management and supervision that tower above these front-line workers, we can expand the “span of control” of managers while still delivering services to residents. For example, in the Streets Division, a heavy equipment operator reports to a supervisor, who reports to a superintendent, who reports to a deputy director, who reports to the department director, who reports to the deputy chief operating officer of public works, who reports to the chief operating officer, who ultimately reports to the mayor. That’s a lot of overhead.

Add to the fact that the city has successful self-directed crews: working foremen who are out in the field directing their coworkers rather than sitting in an office. This begs the question as to why there are so many supervisory positions in the city when a significant portion of their work is delegated to front-line personnel.

Additionally, the city’s managers have often expanded their administrative support while simultaneously cutting public service positions. Today, the city’s budget is rife with “assistant to. …” (insert level of management here).  Many such positions came into existence in the last three years during the current fiscal crisis.

The overall problem of mismanagement points to other areas where cuts to staff have been pennywise but pound-foolish. The Fire Department is losing out on $2 million because it doesn’t have the staff to track down cost recovery payments from other public agencies that are lent firefighters and equipment for major fires as well as businesses who owe for fire inspections of their facilities.

If we are to preserve services while finding savings, some innovations are needed. Several companies and municipalities are now experimenting with a four-day, 10-hour-a-day work week. There are many functions that the city performs where this should also be considered. We estimate that $500,000 would be saved annually on fuel alone if blue-collar workers went to this schedule. Think of the other benefits that are possible for the city’s energy usage and the local environment.

In one last example, the city should really consider the equality of its benefit packages between managers and other employees. There are about 700 to 750 managers who receive $3,000 more in health care allowance than the rest of the workforce. Equalizing this to the level received by non-managerial employees could save the city more than $2 million while also undoing a discriminatory benefit that grants more allowance to those highest-paid employees, who are also more likely to afford health care premiums.

These are a few of the ideas we will present at the committee meeting today. Employees will continue to be a part of the solution in balancing our budgets. We only hope that others in the community will look to see what they can do to restore city government that makes San Diego a city we’re proud to live in.

Joan Raymond is president of AFSCME Local 127, which represents blue-collar employees at the city of San Diego.

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