Community Editorial: Outsourcing and Its Effect on Community Spirit

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The raging debate across Orange County over government outsourcing, from Anaheim to Santa Ana to Costa Mesa, has triggered a fundamental questioning of residents’ relationship with their local government.

This week, Voice of OC’s Community Editorial Board dove into the issue, with left and right crossing swords over the meaning and impact of recent outsourcing efforts throughout the region.

Costa Mesa is the most aggressive example of outsourcing; the city has issued layoff notices to half the workforce and is seeking proposals for all 18 departments. Anaheim also has explored outsourcing with libraries and parks. And Santa Ana recently outsourced its 128-year-old fire department.

Most of these debates have focused on the budgetary rationales for outsourcing, but few officials have talked about the goals for such endeavors, such as enhancing quality of life.

Editorial Board member Jose Moreno, who also serves on the board of the Anaheim City School District, said he’s troubled with city governments outsourcing services like libraries and parks. He sees public employees as central to the services that are provided at cities.

“They take a vested interest,” Moreno said. “It’s not all about lowest bid.”

For Editorial Board member Eric Altman, who heads Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, outsourcing has one central impact.

“You end up decreasing the level of service,” Altman said. “Contractors need to make a profit. Government doesn’t.”

For example, despite Santa Ana officials’ insistence that their fire service levels will stay the same while they save $10 million each year, a Voice of OC analysis found that service levels would indeed be reduced.

Editorial Board member Matt Cunningham, one of Orange County’s leading political strategists from the right, says outsourcing can work because “profit motives drive efficiency.”

Even just raising the issue of outsourcing can cause public agencies to become more efficient overnight, Cunningham added.

Recent publication of city and county salaries in local news media has brought attention to those making six-figure salaries, primarily police and fire employees. Cunningham argues that public employees “have priced themselves out of the market.”

Lisa Major, an assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, disputed that notion, arguing that salaries and benefits for most general employees are not out of line with the private sector.

Yet the central point of this week’s discussion for many Editorial Board members was that the goals behind outsourcing should be better understood in each city. Is it a tool to balance budgets? Or is it a legitimate means to better services at city hall? Or is it just union busting by right-wing politicos?

Editorial Board member Fred Smoller, who teaches political science at Chapman University, sees regionalism of services in the future, especially in public safety, such as the recent outsourcing of the Santa Ana Fire Department to the Orange County Fire Authority.

But he also worries about what large-scale outsourcing could do to the concept of citizenry.

Smoller asks the question, what happens to residents’ loyalty if all city services are provided by private-sector contractors?

“There’s a difference between my duties as a citizen and as a consumer,” Smoller said. “If you reduce citizens to consumers, you’re destroying community.”

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