Three years ago, a program that awarded bonuses to certain city employees if they came up with money-saving ideas was on the chopping block. Kevin Faulconer, then a city councilman, and others believed the program for San Diego water and wastewater employees wasted money at a time when city services were decreasing and water bills were rising.

“I’m strongly supportive of ending this program now,” Faulconer said at a 2011 Council committee hearing. “Immediately.” Soon afterward, Faulconer got his wish.

Three weeks ago, now-Mayor Faulconer unveiled his major government efficiency initiative, which he calls San Diego Works. The first component of the plan is to create of a citywide bonus program for employees who come up with money-saving ideas. Here’s how Faulconer described his effort in a press release:

“The initiative proposes to spur innovative ideas that reduce operational costs by offering city employees rewards and recognition for outstanding efficiency proposals that save money and/or allow for enhanced services to taxpayers that benefit neighborhoods.”

Faulconer spokesman Matt Awbrey said that the old bonus program, known as Bid to Goal, is nothing like what the mayor is proposing now. In the old program, private-sector companies would mock up a bid for work. City employees then pitched cheaper ideas than the mock bids and if they were implemented, workers would receive bonuses.

Details of the new program aren’t final – the mayor is starting labor negotiations to develop it now. But Awbrey said San Diego Works won’t involve mock bids. Instead, city workers will collaborate with their managers to find cost savings, he said.

“Bid to Goal and San Diego Works are two fundamentally different programs,” Awbrey said.

Still, support for these types of efforts tends to shift with political winds. Before it came under intense criticism, Bid to Goal received an award from the San Diego County Taxpayers Association and was a finalist for an award from Harvard University’s school of government.

In 2009, Faulconer, who then headed the city’s audit committee, ordered an audit of the program. The audit found the system, along with other cost-cutting programs, contributed to more than $100 million in savings over five years, but also resulted in $28 million in bonuses for employees during the same time.

Conservatives seized on the $28 million figure and used it to bludgeon the program to death. The number was also the source of one of the most aggressively false claims during the 2012 election.

“Councilmember Sherri Lightner voted to hand government employee unions $28 million in bonuses. Just for doing their jobs,” a mailer from Lightner’s opponent read. (The program actually had been approved long before Lightner took office, and she moved to end it when she was in office.)

City white-collar union head Michael Zucchet recalled reminding city leaders about all the awards the old bonus program won when it faced elimination. He chuckled about the revival of an employee bonus program.

“Put it all together,” Zucchet said, “it’s just amusing.”

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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