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President’s Message, Second Quarter of 2010

“Protecting Taxpayers”

We hear certain politicians talk about “protecting taxpayers” all the time. These words have been used a lot in recent discussions between City management and employees. There is one description of “protecting the taxpayer” that seems to get the most attention. That definition, which I believe is a very narrow view, is that it’s all about the money—pay as little as possible no matter the consequences. According to some politicians with a very specific agenda, that is what is in the best interest of the public.

To me, this doesn’t always reflect the best interests of taxpayers, nor is it necessarily in the public interest. Often, just making decisions based upon the bottom line is not the best choice in the long term. Other cities have learned the hard way that this narrow view is often counterproductive to both the public interest and the bottom line.

In the City Parks Department in the South Bronx, two different private firms (the two lowest bidders) had to be terminated for failing to meet minimum cleanliness standards. Instead of saving the projected $100,000 annually, City officials were tasked with inspecting all 45 parks covered under the contract (half of which were deemed dirty and in dangerous condition), as well as reconciling the overpayment of one of the two companies. In Warwick, Rhode Island, sanitation and recycling services had been performed by a private company from 1992-1997. When the contract came up for renewal, the city’s public works department submitted a bid alongside five private firms. The city handily won the five year contract with a bid that was more than $1 million lower than the closest private company bid.

This is not to say that all privatization efforts are going to result in excessive cost overruns or as dismally as the South Bronx example. Rather, it should serve as a reminder that various factors need to be taken into consideration when evaluating what is in the best interest of the community, and the taxpayers who expect a certain level of service.

No one likes paying bills, including paying for services like water, sewer or the many other essential services provided by City employees. However, when you pay those bills, you do so with an assurance that the City employees who deliver those services are the best at what they do. Yes, the bottom line is important, and City employees know that better than anyone. But as City employees, we know that our job is to deliver the highest quality product to the citizens of San Diego. That’s what we do, and we do it better than anyone else, every single day.