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The city of San Diego is beginning a complex and politically challenging attempt to consolidate services with other area governments.
Like past consolidation efforts, this one is beginning with big promises like substantial cost savings. But the city administrator spearheading the project believes the fiscal crisis could help San Diego and neighboring governments avoid pitfalls that have stopped similar proposals before they started.
“Everybody’s struggling to put their budgets together and find out cheaper ways to provide services,” said Wally Hill, the city’s assistant chief operating officer. “The climate couldn’t be better for something like this.”
For now, the plan is as wide-ranging as it is nebulous. Think San Diego partnering with Poway on tree trimming, Chula Vista on street repair and San Diego County on buying computer software. Or it could come to nothing.
Hill said he didn’t have specific services or savings targets selected and no firm timeframe for moving forward. But he added that consolidation was only worth the city’s time if it could achieve cost savings in expensive departments.
The idea is designed to help relieve the continued financial pressure the city faces. San Diego has a $70 million-plus budget gap, its 10th straight year of deficits, and voters drubbed a sales-tax hike at the polls in November.
The consolidation concept is garnering support. This summer, the city issued surveys to 25 other governments and agencies in the area to gauge their interest in buying, selling or jointly providing more than 100 services from police to wastewater collection. The survey attracted a strong response. The results also show that many governments already have robust outsourcing programs, particularly in trash collection and disposal — something San Diego is considering for itself.
The motivation for smaller cities like La Mesa is the same as San Diego: to save money. La Mesa and two other east county cities received plaudits from the San Diego County Taxpayers Association for consolidating some fire-rescue services last year.
The move was expected to save $560,000 among the three cities.
“I don’t think the city of La Mesa has ever been in a position where financial pressures didn’t exist,” said La Mesa City Manager David Witt said.
Still, many consolidation efforts often begin with bluster and end with a whimper. Former Council President Ben Hueso floated consolidating the city and San Diego County two years ago. His trial balloon popped quickly in the face of skepticism and outright derision. In the mid-1990s, the city and county spent a year discussing the consolidation of services and ended up merging a program that provided meals to senior citizens.
Even Hill’s model for his consolidation survey idea, San Mateo County in Northern California, didn’t fare well, he said. After governments gathered to talk about consolidating, Hill said, the idea died for a lack of interest.
It’s typical for consolidation plans to falter in the details, said David Osborne, author of five books on government bureaucracy including the best-selling Reinventing Government. Turf wars between government agencies, unclear lines of authority, union opposition and public resistance all make the process more difficult than advertised. Even when deals are done, he said, they can take a year to happen.
“It’s touchy for so many reasons,” Osborne said.
But if implemented, Osborne said, the savings could be substantial.
Even government agencies who overlooked the idea now want in. San Diego’s survey got lost in the email of Unified Port of San Diego spokesman Ron Powell this summer. But when I called Powell to ask why the port was one of 11 agencies that didn’t reply to the city’s questionnaire, Powell said it wanted to participate. He later contacted the city.
The port might be interested in consolidating maintenance services for the seven parks it operates in the city, he said.
“That might be an area we’d look at for common ground — literally,” Powell said.
Hill said he will present the survey results this week at the monthly meeting of administrators from local cities and the county. He said he will know the direction of consolidation talks then.
Regardless of those results, San Diego likely will face outside pressure to pursue consolidation, outsourcing and competitive bidding. Businessman and grand poohbah of city finances Vince Mudd said a new report from his task force will focus on shrinking the city.
Mudd plans to divide services into those required by city and state law and those that aren’t. Initial estimates, he said, of doing away with non-mandated services would shave $800 million off the city’s $2.8 billion total budget. Mudd’s report, the task force’s third in a series of examinations on city finances over the past 15 months, is expected in early February.
“The city of San Diego has got to stop reliving its past and start thinking like a city that’s about to encounter a major metamorphosis in the way it does business,” Mudd said. “That is what the public is demanding.”