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City moves services away from staff, unions

By R.E. Graswich
May 2023

There are two kinds of cities in California. Some consider themselves full-service. This means city workers pick up trash, make toilets flush, trim trees, patch potholes, douse fires and arrest people.

The others are contract cities. They pay someone else to handle those mundane, necessary chores.

Sacramento fancies itself a full-service city. The mayor and City Council embrace the title with pride. They charge sky-high fees for utilities, parks and safety. They insist residents want the best possible civic amenities.

The way to guarantee consistent, quality service is to hire municipal workers who toil under City Hall’s thumb. Or so local political leaders claim.

Contract cities hear this nonsense and laugh. They believe it’s dumb to employ garbage collectors or firefighters and cover their salaries, pensions and benefits and engage in endless negotiations with labor unions.

Private companies and regional agencies do the same jobs for less money and fewer headaches, contract cities say.

Contract cities win the argument, at least in California, where they vastly outnumber full-service cities. The only barrier that prevents more cities from off-loading municipal chores is fear. City councils are terrified of public employee unions.

Despite the fear, quietly but steadily, Sacramento is moving into contract city territory. Opportunity arrives with new services where unions don’t pay attention and residents have zero expectations.

The new services are homelessness and youth, goldmines for public funds.

The city has committed mountains of money toward services for kids and people who sleep on sidewalks. Contractors will handle most of the work. They don’t belong to unions.

Since its founding, Sacramento city government mostly avoided responsibility for youth and homeless services. Leaders wisely left those burdens to school districts and county authorities.

Today, mission-creep is underway. The city has become a social services agency. Homeless care and youth programs are city chores.

The latest budget calls for the city to spend more than $25 million on homeless services. The budget supports 38 full-time workers in the Community Response Department. Ten years ago, there was no Community Response Department.

Much of that $25 million goes to private, outside organizations whose employees aren’t covered by collective-bargaining agreements.

The same pattern is found in youth services. Before he retired in December, City Council member Jay Schenirer hypnotized City Hall into thinking it’s a school district.

Schenirer even convinced voters to approve $10 million or so in annual tax indulgences for youth services. That’s on top of the $8 million the city already spends on kids.

Ridiculously, Schenirer persuaded council colleagues to let an unelected youngster sit with the grownups at the City Hall dais. City Council becomes a school board without schools.

Most of those millions of dollars for children won’t go to city workers and union members. Youth service nonprofits get much of the cash under city contracts. Providers are paid by taxpayers. But they don’t really work for the city.

None of this would be possible without Mayor Darrell Steinberg. The mayor helped guide the flow of cash for homeless services. The money’s been largely wasted, to judge by the 10,000 people who exist on Sacramento streets. Only 2,700 lived hard when he was elected in 2016.

Steinberg could have torpedoed Schenirer’s self-serving children’s crusades and saved city dollars for traditional services. But Steinberg encouraged Schenirer’s fantasies.

Now that his quest for a judgeship has belly-flopped, Steinberg is ready to run for a third term. An ironic fate awaits. He must face the consequences of his last eight years.

Steinberg cozied up to unions for decades. He worked for a labor organization before he entered politics. He’s a master horse trader and backroom manipulator, talents perfect for unions but not aligned with modern voter expectations for honesty, transparency and forbearance.

Now city residents and employee unions have a common interest. They’ll want to know why Sacramento is turning into a contract city. I’m sure the mayor will have a good answer.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at Follow us at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram:

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