By Clare Crawford / SignOnSanDiego / Originally published June 21, 2011
The city of San Diego has never mastered the art of managing contracts.
Debris haulers contracted by the city overcharged victims of the 2007 wildfires. Computer system consultants ran millions over budget and months behind schedule. Recently, a private ambulance company took advantage of lax oversight to shortchange the city by an estimated $18 million. And so on.
Again and again, private contractors take San Diego taxpayers for a ride – because they can.
Now the city administration is trying to take on many more contracts, pushing a wide variety of public services through an outsourcing process called “managed competition.” The mayor is setting up major, complicated contracts without the oversight in place to prevent an escalation in contractor boondoggles.
At the same time, city staffing for administering contracts is being cut in half (from 2008 to the 2012 budget proposal). While modeled on federal contracting, San Diego’s outsourcing process has built in less oversight. For example, where the federal formula would require four staff to monitor contracts the size of San Diego’s street sweeping and water customer service, the city is figuring on only 1.5 positions.
Among those and other services being prepared for private contractor bids, outsourcing the operation of Miramar Landfill is particularly fraught with potential costs and risks to the public good.
In addition to efficient and safe handling of the million tons of trash we collectively produce each year, the landfill contract would include:
- Hazardous material inspection, testing, disposal and emergency cleanup.
- Recycling green waste and food waste and producing compost, mulch and wood chips for city residents, community gardens and erosion control.
- Collection of almost $41 million in fees each year.
- Maintenance and monitoring for gas buildup or water contamination at 16 closed landfills and dumps in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Thorough oversight would be needed – but apparently not provided – to ensure a private contractor continues each of those functions safely and correctly.
The mayor tried and failed to sell Miramar Landfill outright, wasting $500,000 on a privatization consultant and uncalculated amounts of top administrators’ time over the past year.
The sale failed for two primary reasons that have not been resolved: lack of approval from the landowner (the Navy) and the huge environmental risk and liability. Private waste companies said they didn’t want the long-term liability of owning the landfill. By offering the companies a contract to run it, the city gives up control of the environmentally sensitive operations but retains all the risk. Contractor malfeasance could violate the lease with the Navy, potentially leaving San Diego with no place to put its trash. If things go wrong, the private contractor could walk away and the city could be left with environmental damage, cleanup costs, lawsuits and fines from multiple state and federal agencies.
Last month, the City Council’s Rules Committee postponed a vote on outsourcing the landfill until the mayor’s staff responded to a list of concerns. Many of those questions remain unanswered, but the committee will be asked again Wednesday for its stamp of approval, on what could end up as another faulty contract.
Given the risks and uncertainties, the committee needs to step back and ask why the push to privatize San Diego’s only public landfill continues at all. As operated by city staff for the past 50 years, Miramar is a complex, streamlined and efficient venture that makes money for the city and provides numerous services for residents. There is no reason to mess with it.
Some city officials say privatization will reduce costs and is imperative because voters approved Proposition C in 2006. That’s a misinterpretation of the will of the voters.
The question on the ballot was: “Shall the Charter be amended to allow the City to contract services traditionally performed by City civil service employees if determined to be more economical and efficient while maintaining the quality of services and protecting the public interest?”
San Diego voters agreed to contract out services only if the quality of those essential services would not decline. Given the city’s lack of oversight, turning over Miramar Landfill to a private operator fails to protect the public interest. Is it economical and efficient? As we have seen too often, but perhaps not learned, contracting without adequate oversight can push costs through the roof.
Crawford is executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives, which advocates for workers.
Vote scheduled tomorrow – Wed. July 13 – at Rules Committee despite unanswered concerns
More than 70 community leaders and residents will urge the San Diego City Council’s Rules committee tomorrow to halt the reckless push to privatize operations at Miramar Landfill.
Rules committee meeting – 1st item
9 a.m. Wednesday, July 13
12th floor, 202 C St., San Diego
For more info on this, go here.