Monday, May 30, 2011

Embracing Smaller Government in Menlo Park

According to this report from the San Jose Mercury News, the Silicon Valley town of Menlo Park is slowly, slowly embracing the virtues of small government. Menlo Park, you see, spends almost three quarters of its budget, some $26.9 million, on personnel, so trimming that spending would seem to be an obvious way of balancing its budget. As such, the city's plan for its 2011-12 budget calls for greater outsourcing of custodial services and proposes contracting out the maintenance of street medians. As City Manager Glen Rojas puts it, "The budget reflects a balanced budget but most of the impacts are internal to the organization. We're absorbing a lot of the workload and keeping our service level to the community to the highest level that we can." In addition, Rojas wants to convert two vacant police-officer positions to non-sworn posts, freeze a vacant post for a part-time teacher, and make payments to CalPERS ahead of schedule to save on interest.

We can already hear the hand-wringing over Rojas's proposal. City Councilman Andy Cohen says, "It's a slippery slope we're on, where we let the least advantaged people go because that is, shall we say, the weakest link in the chain." Because, clearly, city-paid janitors are the only thing holding back the tides of Hobbesian anarchy. And Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson frets that contractors, who have to earn their salaries by performing at a high level, will offer inferior service compared to city employees: "You pay in administrative costs, you pay in having quality monitoring, making sure that any contracted-out work meets our standard. There's just nothing that can substitute for the care and quality that we see from our own city staff." Given our experience with government services, we're not at all sure that second statement is true. In their defense, however, the Council had suggested a 3% pay cut for all city workers making over $100,000 a year. Since one in every four Menlo Park employees would be affected by the cut, it's likely it would've generated considerable savings, but Rojas rejected it: "We can cut salaries, you can do all those things, but if you want an organization that is top quality, we've got to make sure we have the right people in place." Because, of course, money is no object when it's taxpayer money.

If we had our way, of course, both the salary cuts and the outsourcing would be going forward. But still, this is a positive sign of the times: it may not have hit Sacramento yet, but many in California government are starting to realize that scaling back now may save them more trouble down the road.


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