It was standing room only at the Monday, July 2 Oakdale City Council meeting, and the topic that brought out scores of concerned citizens and city workers was a public hearing on public works reorganization. Specifically – privatization of services.
Despite hearing no public support for the measure, the council voted 3-1, with Councilwoman Katherine Morgan casting the lone dissenting vote, to look into contracting out services but pledging to those in attendance that no firm decisions had been made.
The controversial proposal outlined five segments for the city to consider for privatization of all its public works services with the exception of two city garage mechanics.
Interim City Manager Stan Feathers presented the proposal stating that the city was facing a significant budget challenge and that revenues were not meeting expenditures. Measure O, the sales tax initiative passed last November, was identified as “a short term fix with a limited duration of time.”
Finance Director Albert Avila reported to the council that the city must take decisive action to avoid insolvency and that he supported the privatization proposal.
“The city needs to recalibrate the services it provides,” stated Feathers. “The severity of budget conditions necessitates examining alternative service delivery.”
Feathers, Contracted Operations Manager Dee Tatum, and former Interim City Manager Greg Wellman, who remains on an hourly consultant’s contract, all prefaced the discussion that the matter was not considered casually, was a difficult decision, and if done, would be in full compliance with the meet and confer process with the affected bargaining unit.
“We do not bring this recommendation forward lightly,” said Feathers. “It will create an atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity.”
More than a dozen speakers, many of whom were public works employees, all spoke in opposition to the measure.
Duane Reynolds, a 31-year public works employee, pointed out that Oakdale would lose its “old country charm” and questioned that if there was privatization, would corners be cut due to the “low bid” process.
Reynolds also addressed the city’s liability to water chlorination without proper flushing, something he claims a private company wouldn’t care about.
Rich O’Hara of the streets and sewer division, invited the council to see what they do on a daily basis.
“Get out in traffic and dodge those 2,000-pound bullets,” O’Hara said, referring to the speeding cars that pass by work crews.
Operating Engineers Business Representative Mike Eggener, who represents the possible affected city workers, addressed the council, telling them that the proposal was “extremely premature.” He said that public works employees only make up 8 percent of the general fund and asked that they look at other cost factors from last year such as over $300,000 in legal fees and a $130,000 unauthorized charge.
“Show us the cost savings by doing this,” said Eggener. “Have the employees get involved and show you how to save money.”
Public Works Employee Chris Robinette presented a suggestion showing how money could be saved in the city’s water and sewer billing process. Robinette’s proposal showed how the city could save, by his estimation, over $830,000 with a private company doing the billing and modern water meter replacements.
During council discussion, council member Morgan said she was reluctant to vote for the proposal and wanted to hear more alternatives from the public and workers.
Mayor Pat Paul echoed Morgan and assured that the council would seek additional public input and make comparisons before deciding whether to contract out the proposal’s segments.
Councilman Mike Brennan informed the public that the process for privatization would be slow and methodical but made no secret of how he would vote.
“This cannot be about people anymore; it has to be about serving the public,” Brennan said. “The dead reality is one or more people employed by the City of Oakdale won’t be employees any longer.”
After the 3-1 vote, most of the audience left and gathered outside the council chambers.
“They should have gone to the employees with some ideas,” said Robinette after the meeting. “We only learned of this on Thursday (June 28) and I was able to come up with this in three days. Those hourly consultants (Feathers, Wellman, Tatum) just don’t know these things.”