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.