Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Monday's Council Meeting Report


Hmmm, Where to start?

The council chambers were completely full with standing room only in the outer lobby. About 100 folks were there to discuss the DPOA issue and others for the various issues such as the closing of Monroe St. and the city's budget cut and outsourcing proposals. Here's a a recap of what happened:

DPOA
This is so complex I've decided to shorten this post and add it as the next post so this is not too long.

MONROE STREET CLOSURE
With over 30 speaker cards, this became the largest issue of the evening to be heard. Residents of Monroe spoke to the burgeoning problems with "cut through" traffic on Monroe, which juts out from Orange Grove and Garey and curves up to meet McKinley. Monroe has been a convenient shortcut for those who don't want to get caught in the traffic trying to get on the freeway when they want to head east on McKinley. Tales of cars ending up in front yards and accidents as well as fear for the safety of the growing number of families with children in the area made an impression on councilmembers.

In opposition were Frantz Cleaners and the Dentist office at Monroe and Orange Grove, both of whom felt that the closure would have negative impacts on their businesses. Other speakers opposing included residents of surrounding streets who feared that the closure of Monroe would move the problem to their streets.

However, councilmember Lantz gave a very well thought out history of the intersection and the problems that have occurred during the past 20 years or so. She noted that when the street was originally laid out, that there was no freeway and that the changes in traffic patterns necessitate such action.

For myself, a resident of Monroe, I spoke to the historic nature of our district, which was more urban and does not have cul-de-sacs and questioned making such a drastic change while acknowledging the very real problems that exist. I'm afraid that I probably was not as clear as I could have been in my 3-minutes. I was not actually against the closure, but felt that there might be an alternative mitigation.

The council voted unanimously to support the closure of Monroe. At least it should have a positive impact on my personal property value as being on the only "quiet cul-de-sac" in the city's National Historic District.

BUDGET
It was pointed out at the start of discussion that this was not a public hearing, but mearly an exploratory meeting so that staff could better understand the council's direction on preparing the budget. There were several speakers from the city's employees' union decrying the use of outsourcing and the probable reductions in service as jobs are taken over by individuals who don't know the city and have no long-term committment to serving our citizens.

There was a lot of discussion about the impacts of cuts. Councilmember Soto was concerned that if we moved to outsource a service such as street sweeping that we'd have a hard time bringing it back in-house if we wanted to, especially since the plan would be to sell off all of the city's equipment. It was also noted that at one point that we had outsourced the street sweeping of Holt Avenue and that it was so bad that we had to take it back.

Councilmember Lantz spoke at length about the fact that they were not given "apples to apples" comparisons as to where the savings were coming from. In some cases the solution to elimianting a city position was that the duties would fall to others in the department, but how would that affect service? Would there be additional delays in getting jobs done. As for the outsourcing, the proposals note that there would also be a reduction in service, but there was no indication what the costs would be of a similar reduction using current city staff.

Probably most intersting was City Manager Lowry's analogy to the budget process as potentially being a yo-yo diet with the budget getting fat and skinny as conditions change, but what she felt we needed was liposuction. I can only guess that she means getting rid of anything that is fat and then going on a starvation diet. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the patient might be thin, but dead in a very short period.

The next meeting on the budget will be on June 15. Mayor Rothman asked that the meeting be dedicated to the budget and that other items be postponed to later meetings so that they can concentrate on the budgetary matters.

WATER CONSERVATION
Also on the agenda was an ordinance mandating water conservation throughout the city. This was a requirement by the Metropolitan Water District if the city wanted to be eligible for grant funding for water related projects in the future. Basically MWD was telling the city what it had to do, even though Pomona gets over 75% of its water from local sources and only relies on MWD for a maximum of 25% of its water.

The ordinance includes restrictions on when residents can water their yards, with automatic irrigation limited to three days a week and a maximum run time of 15 minutes. For myself, in my back yard I have a system with three zones that each run for 10 minutes, three times a week. The sytem is a moderate drip system, unlike lawn sprinklers which run full tilt. So will I be out of compliance with this new ordinance? Do my plants have to die?

Speaking on the subject was Dawn Van Allen, owner of The Garden who expressed concerns about her business which relies on irrigation system watering. Ms. Van Allen was assured that her business would be protected under the new ordinance.

With an amount of conern, the council passed the ordinance. Councilmember Lantz noted that with cutbacks and an already overburdened code enforcement division, that we probably have little to worry about from the "water police." However, she did hope that all residents would conserve water as much as possible, especially in this period of drought. Staff noted that they are planning on having "friendly reminder" cards created to give to residents when violations of the new ordinance are noted.

20 comments:

Anduhrew said...

i don't know wht exactly is entailed in that ordinance. but I hope drip systems are exempt. there is much less evapotranspiration from drip systems. meaning instead of a 50 percent efficiency of watering with sprinklers it is up to 75-85% efficiency. Yet they still allow hand watering? which is almost the same as sprinklers.

Anonymous said...

I was under the impression that drip systems were exempt, but I need to look more carefully at the restrictions.

Ed said...

I think a better analogy for Lowry's budget solution might be the concept of switching from a gas guzzler to a fuel efficient model. The real question is how can the city travel farther with a finite amount of gas (money). If outsourcing can provide a similar service but do it cheaper, then we've downsized the city's financial obligations and can successfully squeeze into a more fuel efficient vehicle. Rather than cutting away fat, we should look at Lowry's solution as dumping street cleaning and park services onto a trailer and then towing the trailer with a smaller car.

"I can only guess that she means getting rid of anything that is fat and then going on a starvation diet. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the patient might be thin, but dead in a very short period."

I don't completely understand your point. From my perspective, the "starvation diet" is the money coming into the city and I can't see how the city can alter that flow in the short-term. The only mechanism available to the city is to more efficiently use the money that it receives.

If you want to disagree that outsourcing can more cheaply accomplish the same task as in-house employees, then we need to look at the numbers.

John Clifford said...

It's probably a bit too much to go into here (these posts are already getting a little long). Part of the problem that the council was having was that they didn't feel that they were getting adequate information. The outsourcing of street sweeping, as an example, would also include a reduction of service. But they didn't provide the costs of reduced services remaining in-hours, nor did they have an actual quote as to the cost of outsourcing.

I have several problems with outsourcing that I'm sure we can disagree on, but I've never been able to understand how paying someone profit can result in a cost saving. The purpose of a private entity is to create a profit, the purpose of a city is to provide a service. Pomona is big enough that we should be able to enjoy the economies of scale that large organizations can. Otherwise, without data, I'm not sure how these "savings" are created.

AND, I have concerns that outsourcing will become a magnet for greed and outside influence. Today the largest outsourcing vendor in our city is the LA County Fire Department. And who was the biggest contributor (influencer) in our most recent election? And the Fire Department is being saddled with many fewer cuts that the PD. Hmmmm...

Ed said...

Don't know the actual numbers, but I might guess the largest outside influence is the San Bernardino Public Employees Association.

I just got lost in your train of thought, particularly the paragraph I quoted. My point was just that with limited funds we should look for the best deal. If outsourcing accomplishes that, then so be it. I didn't realize your opposition to outsourcing was for reasons other than financial.

I guess I'm less concerned about outsourcing parks and street cleaning, because I'm assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that multiple firms would compete for these bids, and therefore, it's not comparable to fire or police protection. Contracts for street, sidewalks, water pipes, and sewage repair might be the better comparison.

Since I also don't know what limitations exist in the LA County Fire contract negotiated by the previous city manager, I won't touch the suggestion of corruption or back room deals. Food for thought, I wonder what percentage of the city's budget goes to police department vs fire department?

calwatch said...

One of the BIG problems with outsourcing is that someone has to monitor the contract. So you are saving money on the service, but the contract has to be monitored. Also, canceling contracts is very difficult - again, there are lobbying issues, and potential corruption - for example, tow truck operators in many cities are expected to contribute to the incumbents in order to retain their franchise, and let's not get into Arakelian Enterprises/Athens Services systematic elimination of the competition through the lobbying of cities to make their trash franchises exclusive.

There are ways to steer contracts to someone other than the lowest bidder. When you introduce the RFP process, you introduce biased committees, shredding of dissenting comments, points given for dubious, subjective qualifications such as "community expertise", etc. Because of this, for public works construction contracts, state law requires the lowest responsive bidder get the job - with only objective criteria used to determine responsiveness. Unfortunately, service contracts are always RFP-type contracts - to give discretion to the staff not to select dud contractors. Once one of the duds get the contract, though, they lobby the elected officials, and it becomes difficult to terminate them before the time is up - and no overworked city official is going to welcome the whole resolicitation process.

calwatch said...

County Fire and Sheriff always talks a good game to the city when they consider contracting. Then they ratchet up the rates afterwards. Who else are you going to turn to? (In the case of Pomona, maybe San Bernardino County, but most counties are reluctant to take contracts outside their boundaries.)

gilman said...

Calwatch,

I couldn't agree more with your points related to the city plans to outsource several departments.

I find it particularly disturbing that the Council Agenda simply describes the action to be taken as an approval of the yearly budget with no mention of the complete elimination of departments including Building and Safety.
A member of the public would have no idea that Building and Safety was going to be eliminated and outsourced based on this agenda description?

I also find it interesting that of all the departments that could be cut, why Building and Safety? These guys are really on the front lines representing the city to it's citizens....and I believe they are doing a good job at a cost effective price point.

I looked at the proposed budget and saw no reduction in Council Travel or expenses, or Council compensation or administrative support staff?
Seems odd indeed....

Lastly, a good example of poor administration can be seen in the recent Council contract approvals....over a million dollars was spent for outside construction management service on various projects throughout the city. The city could have easily retained a competent engineer to handle all of these service for far less money....could have paid a huge $200,000 per year and still saved hundreds of thousands?

John Clifford said...

And don't forget that we completely outsource our city attorney. We have at least 4 attorneys (that I come into contact on a fairly frequent basis) who are always there. Couldn't the city just hire them? When something that requires specialized legal help, they hire another outside firm. Doesn't seem logical to me.

But then we're dealing with Arnold Alvarez-Glasman. Sure is interesting that just before Norma became mayor there was a vocal call to dump him, but then . . .

calwatch said...

A city attorney firm does have more expertise since they are dealing with so many other cities and has more cross-training in issues that don't come up that often. Although I don't really like Alvarez-Glasman, I find some other firms like Best Best & Krieger or Burke Williams & Sorensen to be extraordinarily competent.

Construction management is a big issue, because the workload for these outfits ebbs and flows. You have periods when there are lots of submittals, the project closeout, and issues with the community, but when everything goes smoothly, there is little work. The ACE Construction Authority, who built those underpasses at East End and Reservoir, recently reported savings of several hundred thousand dollars when they shifted from Bechtel for project management to in house employees (some of whom were hired from the consultant). However, they still have construction management firms (PB Americas, LAN Engineering) for the day to day handling of submittals and engineering expertise. There's a difference between project management - the global coordination of permits, funding, etc. between agencies, railroads, private property owners, etc. - and construction management, the handling or issues like "the sewer line is in the wrong place, what do I do" or the paperwork of paying the contractor.

gilman said...

It would be interesting to ask Council if they felt it was appropriate to ask the City Attorney to consider a reduction in his fee schedule during these troubling times.

I suspect Glasman would consider such a reduction if faced with the potential of losing the city business all together....

Mr Clifford,

I am not sure you can count on your property increasing in value due to the street becoming a cul-de-sac. If property values are increased due to their Historic protection, then yours may deflate due to it's location no longer being historically accurate???

John Clifford said...

I'm very glad that the comments are enlightening me on subject that I'm still hazy on. Thanks.

Gilman, my home will still be in the historic district and retain its historic significance. Actually I was the one who brought up the possible historic significance of the "open access" to the neighborhood. However, I think that value will still rise as a family that wants a historic home but is raising children might find additional value in a cul-de-sac over streets with through access. My comment was mostly that while I didn't get what I thought was appropriate, I might still benefit anyway. A little snarky self-depreciation humor that probably didn't work.

John Clifford said...

Oh, I forgot, there is a cut in the city attorney's part of the budget. They propose to stop providing city attorney for historic commission meetings.

Ed said...

Based on only a cursory reading of the arguments against outsourcing, here's what I'm hearing:

We can't outsource, because we can't trust people.

Gilman did bring up the cost effectiveness of the building department as a reason not to outsource, but I didn't see any actual numbers to support the argument. If it's more cost-effective to keep them, then I'm 100% for it, but the city could be seeing the same ebb and flow in the construction cycles that Calwatch referred to.

Calwatch also made a useful point by indentifying that ACE was able to reassess its need and save money by bringing some services in-house. Certainly Pomona would have the same latitude if conditions change.

Kudos also to Calwatch for pointing out the problems with contracting in a monopolistic market (e.g. County Fire and Sheriff), but I don't believe that condition exists in park maintenance. As for the competitive market for street cleaning and building safety, I really have no idea, but nobody brought up that point.

As for lawyers, let's assume Pomona has a $100,000 salaried attorney on staff (probably low range), that would be the equivalent of 285 hours of an attorney charging $350/hr (probably partner rate at Best, Best, and Krieger level, so may be high). If associates are doing the work, you will have more hours. Keep in mind the $100,000 doesn't include benefits, so the final cost of an in-house attorney would be substantially higher. Given the dynamic nature of legal work, a staff attorney will STILL need to outsource some work, and the 285 hours I cited would be for actual hours worked. It might make sense to have one lawyer on staff, but without numbers, how could I (or anyone else) offer an informed opinion.

Am I concerned about people losing their jobs? Absolutely! Am I concerned about the city having sufficient finances to maintain the infrastructure and services? Absolutely! Neither Gilman, John, nor Calwatch addressed the fundamental question of what the city should do if it doesn't have enough money to satisfy its obligations. My apologies if I missed it, otherwise I'm all ears.

My point in this ramble is to emphasize that we need to be open-minded and compare the numbers. If outsourcing is the cost-effective choice then the city should consider it.

Now if someone had made the argument that outsourcing would lead to a lower standard of living because of the loss in benefits, then I'd agree that was a valid point, but nobody pushed that position.

Not that you probably care, but I prefer data over 'we can't do that because people might be corrupted'.

George Bernard Shaw

"If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas."

Thanks for sharing!

gilman said...

Ed,

I agree with your overall view that outsourcing should be considered when it makes financial sense for the City.

However in the case of the Building and Safety department issue, how would we know? The Council is being asked to eliminate an entire department based on some subjective assertion that money will be saved? No evidence is provided to the Council which would verify such a claim....no quote from outside firms, no identification of firms capable of doing the work proposed, nothing!
Again, it is just being asserted that a savings would occur?
In addition, these are the folks that deal with the public on a wide range of issues that effect the citizens every day life as well as important safety and code issues. It would seem to me that these would be the last folks that should be outsourced.
Outsourcing of planning, or plan checks, or engineering services or secretarial services....maybe.

As for how to save money, well you owe it to yourself to go down and take a look at the budget.
I see no cuts for Administration, Council compensation, Council travel, hourly compensation for legal services, etc.?

I suspect that if the City put the legal services contract out for bids, they could reduce the city's overall costs by 20-30%?

Ed said...

Gilman,
It appears we completely agree. We should all expect our Council members to exercise due diligence when evaluating whether a service should be outsourced. And you make a very good point that cost alone shouldn't be the final determinant.

On the legal side, perhaps a city this size should have a lawyer on staff to manage legal exposure. I don't see the goal of the position being the elimination of outside counsel, but rather the purpose would be to have a city employee dedicated to risk management and negotiating the best rates from outside firms. I'm not suggesting it's true, but I could see an argument that it's not in the best interest of Alvarez-Glasman to minimize the city's litigation risks. But again, I'll point out that I'm not privy to any communications that the city attorney has with the Council and whether the city attorney hasn't advised against some of the Council's more bonehead decisions.

The legal profession hasn't escaped the layoffs of this recession which might bode well for finding an applicant willing to sacrifice big firm dreams (and salary) for the regular hours of city employment.

Here's to hoping that our Council members reach out to the public for advice and/or demand that they be given a complete accounting of the true costs of these budget decisions.

John Clifford said...

Ed / Gilman,

I will note that while the city doesn't pay them, there are a number of "staff" attorneys. They're just paid for by Alvarez-Glasman. Don't know if it would be cost-saving to bring them in-house or not, but they seem to always be around city hall. If we were only outsourcing overflow or if we didn't have enough to keep a full-time attorney busy (the types of outsourcing I'm familiar with), then it would make sense to outsource. I'm always at a loss to understand how paying for the attorney services AND the profits to the company can be cost savings. We can't even argue a lot of overhead as the city attorney still maintains an office in city hall.

In my experience you outsource if you can't maintain capacity of the service inhouse, or if there are additional overhead issues (additional equipment, offices, etc.) that you can't cost justify for the service.

I do work for a company that outsources most of their work. They ARE NOT the cheaper alternative. It would be way cheaper for their clients to go directly to the outsource vendor. However, my client has other means of "adding value" to the work provided. I just don't see where we'd get value added outsourcing any of these areas that the city's been discussing.

gilman said...

Mr. Clifford,

All good points. Certainly there are times when outsourcing can make sense, but for the city to simply imply that a savings will occur by outsourcing is patently false.

I find it remarkable that under the guise of "annual budget approval", the Council is being asked to effectively eliminate the City's Building and Safety department? No analysis of how "outsourcing" would save a dime is offered for Council consideration?

I think hiring a full time staff attorney to handle the rudimentary issues as well as being present during Council/Commission meetings, probably makes a lot of financial sense. For example, Glasman probably bills the city $300-400 hour plus travel time for each Council meeting he attends....cutting that out alone would save tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands.

Anonymous said...

Are the attorneys that "seem to always be around city hall" associates in AGC?

Although not the only reason, you would use outside counsel to provide expertise in a specific area. For instance, the Phillips Ranch landslide was handled by an attorney outside of Alvarez-Glasman and Colvin (AGC). Pomona's city attorney and the firms referenced by Calwatch are small, regional firms with limited areas of expertise. If it helps, you might want to compare the legal field with the medical field.

Perhaps the city may want to look at comparable size cities on the westside to gauge whether an in-house city attorney is preferential to Pomona's approach. We might feel a city employee is more accountable and has a greater incentive to control litigation than AGC.

I'm only speculating here, but I would think you could save money in either of two ways by outsourcing. First, the company pays lower wages or offers fewer benefits. Second, the employee's costs are spread over more than client. The Council would really need to see the comparisons.

Ed

John Clifford said...

Under my understanding, there are no attorneys employed directly by the city. All of the city attorneys are part of AGC. I also understand that the city used to have its own city attorney but at some time before I got involved in such issues, they decided (for a reason that I've never been able to get a "grasp" on) to go with AGC.