No, the phones in Aliso Viejo City Hall are not ringing off the hooks, unanswered. And no, the people in Laguna Beach are not being waited on hand and foot.
At least, not by city staffers.
An Orange County Register analysis of city workers per city resident shows that these two little burgs, which exist cheek by jowl in South County, are at polar ends of the municipal staffing spectrum.
Aliso Viejo is the most circumspect, with just one employee for every 2,498 residents, while Laguna Beach is the most sumptuous, with one worker for every 92.5 residents. Everyone else falls somewhere in between.
This wild divergence illustrates the difference between old and new, between “full-service” grande dames (with their own police, fire, marine-safety, library, recreation, etc.) and newfangled “contract” cities (which hire third parties to do such work and thus have dramatically fewer staffers on the books).
One might turn the equation around and conclude that this also means that city services cost the most per resident in Laguna Beach and the least in Aliso Viejo, which is pretty much the case, give or take myriad mitigating factors.
We’ll note here that older cities hate per capita comparisons like this.
“Not just apples to oranges, but apples to oranges to grapes to watermelon to kiwi,” said Brea spokeswoman Cindie Ryan.
Also, new cities stress that it’s not always “you get what you pay for.”
But first – to get all philosophical on you – this does bring up larger issues of governing.
“Do people care whether their trash is collected by someone who works for the city or a private company? Or, as Mao said, ‘It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.’ Should they?” mused Fred Smoller, professor of political science and devoted local-government watcher at Chapman University.
“What happens to a community when citizens are seen and see themselves as customers, and cities are solely service providers? Would you feel comfortable being pulled over by a cop that works for a private firm? There’s good and bad about contracting,” Smoller said.
The whole concept of contracting out city services was born in unincorporated Lakewood in 1954, as it fought off a “hostile takeover” from neighboring Long Beach. Lakewood incorporated, then contracted out most services to Los Angeles County, which had been providing them before the ruckus.
The “Lakewood Plan,” as it has come to be known, has been embraced by most new cities that sprang up in its wake. The financial advantages of such an approach are most pronounced when looking at cities’ long-term liabilities:
Grande dame Anaheim faces a gap of $560 million between what city staffers have earned to date for future retirement benefits and what the city has stashed away. Aliso Viejo’s liability is just $597,851 – almost a thousandth of that amount.
Folks will tell you that both systems get the job done.
“If you’re a resident of this city or a customer at the front counter, you don’t notice any difference,” said Aliso Viejo City Manager David Doyle. “Things work extremely well in Aliso Viejo.”
Aliso Viejo has a newfangled partner furnishing parks and recreation services, thus relieving the city of that duty: the Aliso Viejo Community Association, a master homeowners association.
The city’s maintenance, building and safety duties are outsourced, as well as police and fire services (to the O.C. Sheriff’s Department and the O.C. Fire Authority).
“One of the benefits of using contractors is that, when you need additional staff – like we do right now, with a lot of building projects coming on line – we’re able to bring them in to handle the growth spurt,” Doyle said.
Contract cities must still pay folks to provide those services, of course. But not having those workers on the city payroll translates into savings, particularly in the benefits arena.
John Pietig, Laguna Beach’s city manager, cautioned that this exercise shouldn’t be used to draw conclusions. Millions of people swarm his city in the summer, and that requires a host of municipal services that other cities don’t have to provide.
“In addition to police and fire services, the City of Laguna Beach provides lifeguarding, sewage, transit, dispatching, jail, building inspection, and animal control services,” Pietig said by email.
The story is much the same for Newport Beach. Residents should understand that they’re not the only ones shouldering the costs of city services, said Newport City Manager Dave Kiff – visitors pump money into city coffers from parking meters, hotels, restaurants and retail sales taxes.
And the cities must be prepared to handle the tourist onslaughts. “I can’t staff up or down my police department to just serve the nighttime population,” Kiff said.
Chapman’s Smoller suggests Aliso Viejo represents the future: Traditional city council-city manager systems morphing into public versions of homeowners associations, where all services are privatized.
“Electeds in full-service cities can’t pull this off – though I am sure they’d love to – because their public employee unions would be so in their face,” Smoller said.
Some might recall chaos in Costa Mesa after a new council majority issued pink slips to hundreds of city staffers in 2011, in an effort to outsource services and cut costs.
Labor sued. A recent settlement allows Costa Mesa to privatize some services in 2017, but blocks other outsourcing efforts for four years. The whole endeavor has cost the city some $2 million.
“The next stop is Sandy Hills, Georgia,” Smoller said. “The council hired a management company – CH2M-Hill – to run nearly everything. Cash-strapped cities find this very appealing.”
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