Almanac

Viewpoint - June 8, 2011

Editorial: Why the hurry in Atherton layoffs?

We know there is a sense of urgency in Atherton to bring some stability to the city's growing budget problems. The town has made horrendously bad management and legal decisions in recent years, which has resulted in an out-of-balance budget that city officials say will mean a nearly $900,000 deficit in the 2011-12 fiscal year.

But the City Council's recent decision to outsource the entire workforce of its building and public works departments on the advice of interim city manager John Danielson, with virtually no public discussion, strikes us as short-sighted and certainly not fair to the town's residents and the 13 employees who will be out of work July 1.

On May 26, the town told a Teamsters official and two shop stewards that 13 of 16 union-represented employees would receive their pink slips the following week. Mayor Jim Dobbie told the Almanac: "I am very, very sad that this was necessary to help bring the town into financial viability. We take no pleasure in laying off these employees whatsoever, but if we don't take these steps, everybody's going to lose their jobs because we'll go under."

The road to the decision began just one month ago, at a lightly attended 8 a.m. meeting on Monday, May 9, when council members gave Mr. Danielson carte blanche to look for cuts in staff and services. There was no mention of terminating entire departments, or anywhere near one-third of the city's workforce. (The layoffs represent closer to two-thirds of the town's staff if police department personnel are not part of the equation.)

Since that meeting, the council has not discussed the issue or taken any public votes. No staff reports have been issued and no public notices posted.

So why was there no public discussion of the options? What about the public safety department, which eats up more than 50 percent of the town's expenses? Surely there were other paths the city could have taken, perhaps presenting the union with a specific roll-back demand rather than axing entire departments. This strategy has been used in other communities with some success, when unions are given the option of rolling back wages and benefits or seeing a certain number of members laid off. As it happened, employees were never even asked to reopen their contract to renegotiate terms, according to the Teamsters' representative.

Another mystery is whether the town considered income generated from fees for service that traditionally have paid most if not all the expenses of the building department. In the past, it has been a goal of the town to make these departments revenue-neutral, and the building department had a large reserve.

Another impact of this precipitous action is the huge loss of institutional memory when these workers walk out the door. We expect that Atherton residents will be less satisfied with the services they are accustomed to receiving from longtime workers in these departments. Certainly contract employees can fill some straightforward jobs, but we suspect there will be a rocky transition.

Finally, it is far from clear how much — if any — savings will be accrued by this outsourcing. In testimony before the council on May 18, building inspector Joseph Aiello said outsourcing may not save the town money at all, and could in fact, cost more. He said he compared his time and compensation with that of a contract employee working in the building department, and found that the consultant cost one-third more than he did.

At this point, it is not clear if the city will find services for comparable costs in its bid to outsource. Apparently requests for proposals were issued before the affected workers received their termination notice. Mr. Dobbie said last week that he expects new contract employees can be on board in time to take over July 1.

Nevertheless, it is extremely disappointing that this action was taken so hastily and without any public input. There is no question that the town's expenses must be reduced, but to do it in this way, without any public discussion, may do more harm than good.

Comments

Posted by peter carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 9, 2011 at 6:28 pm

peter carpenter is a registered user.

The Almanac is, particularly for a NEWSpaper, very uninformed. Anyone with any connection to Atherton knew that we have a structural deficit, anyone knew that the Interim Town Manager was given the assignment of eliminating that structural deficit, anyone knew that the Interim Town Manager had received Town Council approval to conduct management reviews directed at eliminating that structural deficit. If the Almanac and citizens chose to ignore these facts and failed to attend Council meetings then they have only themselves to blame.

When the Town is rushing over the cliff of financial deficit it is not the time to say let's stop and see if we might possibly encourage citizens to suddenly become involved. If citizens don't come to council meetings they are voting with their feet.

Anyone who thinks that a new parcel tax would be approved is sadly out of touch.

Danielson is doing exactly what he was hired to do and the Council is doing exactly what it told the citizens it would do.


Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 9, 2011 at 7:33 pm

Peter:

EVERYONE KNOWS the police department eats up far more of the town's budget than these department yet Danielsen didn't hand them pink slips and didn't request an RFP from the Sheriff's Dept. WHY????

Because these guys are EASY the police are not. If he really wants to make "carte blanche" cuts which he has been authorized to do, and he had any stones he's get rid of the APD. The town wouldn't have to cough up ridiculous amounts in law suit money and the cost of police services would be at least cut in HALF. Yet no outsourcing of police services. WHY???? the emperor has no stones.


Posted by peter carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 9, 2011 at 7:57 pm

peter carpenter is a registered user.

Menlo Voter asks:"EVERYONE KNOWS the police department eats up far more of the town's budget than these department yet Danielsen didn't hand them pink slips and didn't request an RFP from the Sheriff's Dept. WHY????"

As I have patiently told MV over and over the Town Manager does have the authority to fire the entire PD but lacks the authority to outsource police services to the Sheriff without the approval of the Town Council.

I have consistently advocated outsourcing police services to the Sheriff but so far I am the only Atherton resident who has publicly advocated such a move to the Town Council - hardly an overwhelming mandate.


Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 9, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Then WHY, Peter, has he not asked the council for permission to outsource the police department? Because he has NO STONES! Or an ulterior motive. I've said it before, you don't treat a cut when the victim has a gunshot wound.


Posted by peter carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 9, 2011 at 8:30 pm

peter carpenter is a registered user.

MV states:"you don't treat a cut when the victim has a gunshot wound."

Analogies often lead to misrepresentations but I would respond that faced with a patient who has cancer and a bleeding would I would always begin by stopping the bleeding.

Leadership involves choices and not every choice satisfies the critics. But not making choices is even worse.

And accusing somebody who is making tough choices of not having "stones" is a cheap shot from somebody sitting anonymously on the sidelines.


Posted by wasteland, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 9, 2011 at 8:51 pm

About that cancer...eating away at everyone else's jobs.....is it going to be chemo or the knife?


Posted by John P Johns, CPA, a resident of another community
on Jun 9, 2011 at 10:52 pm

I have reviewed the City's FY 2011-12 recommended budget. The amount of money that outsourcing will purportedly save is trivial, particularly in comparison to the risks that outsourcing carries.

Peter Carpenter is flat out wrong in his assessment of the current situation. Mr. Carpenter has unfairly criticized this paper for an editorial that was incisive and on point.

Mr. Danielson is acting with reckless disregard for those who will be affected by this rash move, to wit: the residents of Atherton and the 13 employees who stand to loose their jobs after countless years of faithful service.

Mr. Carpenter also continues to ignore the elephant in the room. While using the threat of outsourcing as a way of extorting wage and benefit concessions from Public Works and Building, Danielson actually recommends an increase in the Atherton Police Department's budget.

If Mr. Danielson had half of the foresight and courage that Mr. Carpenter seems to suggest that he does, Mr. Danielson would have sought staffing and/or wage and benefit concessions from Police.



Posted by wasteland, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 10, 2011 at 12:24 am

Peter: I am shocked at your attack on Gibbony's editorial. You are spending way too much time alone with your facts and numbers and charts if you can not recognize that every well reasoned question he posed is exactly what needs to be explained to the public. There are other kinds of balance sheets and equations to consider here-like fairness, or how about this math--EQUATABLE concessions = EQUANIMITY for a living breathing organization X all departments.
I for one appreciated Tom's article and await your cure for Cancer.


Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 10, 2011 at 6:53 am

Peter:

your description of the APD is apt. Danielsen should remove the cancer.


Posted by Arlin Murry, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 10, 2011 at 7:34 am

carpenter is all wet

Taking such a drastic action for such limited benefits is unworthy of praise.

I say fire danielson and hire someone who has the stones to address overspending and corruption in police


Posted by Hasty, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 12, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Hey, lets all attack the first City Manager in greater Menlo to actually address the employee cost disaster that every previous city manager has brought our towns. Lets fire anonymously from the bushes - and do it now, because in two months the effort (barely begun with a small group of employees) may actually stop the bleeding and we'll have missed our chance! Get him now!


Posted by Arlin Murry, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 12, 2011 at 6:53 pm

[Portion deleted. Don't attack posters.]

There's a saying. "You get what you pay for". We in Atherton expect premium services for our dollar. Not the Walmart kind of service one can expect from private contractors.


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