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City Council to vote on outsourcing public services

The San Diego city council will decide today whether to ask voters to allow the city to outsource public services. Opening city jobs to the private sector was one of Mayor Jerry Sanders' campaign promises, as he looked for ways to cut costs in a town with a billion dollar pension deficit. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more.

Mayor Jerry Sanders has a mandate to rock the boat he's got billions of dollars in deficits to deal with at the city, and Wall Street is watching his steps.

SANDERS: "If we are going to achieve meaningful change at city hall we're going to need to shake things up, thoughtfully and deliberately, keeping the status quo simply wont solve the problems we have right now."

The mayor is asking the city council to put a proposal on the November ballot, to allow managed competition from the private sector to take over some city services.

The issue is a hot topic this early in the year because if the city council wont support it, other political interests want time to collect enough signatures to get it on the ballot.

Carl Demaio of the private think tank, the Performance Institute, threatened a city committee with additional reforms to labor agreement if they didn't agree to send the matter to the full council for a vote.

DEMAIO: "We will consider those additional reforms, if we don't make some progress today. We look forward to working with you."

Demaio says the changes are to benefit the taxpayers. But Lani Lutar of the San Diego Taxpayer's Association had a list of question about the ballot measure that she wanted answered before supportingt it.

LUTAR: "If a city department is dissolved how will the outside contractor be prevented from subsequently raising the cost or reducing level of services, how will non performance or shortfalls be penalized."

These are questions city employees want answers to also. Joan Raymond of the blue collar workers' union, local 127, says the city isn't keeping track of its current outside contracts.

RAYMOND: "We already have a plenty of private contracts in the city there is no accountability for it there should be, there is no evidence to show that any of these private contracts has saved the city any money through the years, in fact we have found the opposite to be true."

Chris Ladah of the metro wastewater department says, in his experience, private contractors aren't accountable to the public.

LADAH: "We get calls cos of the problems they have with sewers backing up into their houses and they cannot get a hold of the contractors to fix the problem, they leave the city, they leave the state even a name change, so we have to come out fix their problem, we do the job and we do it right."

In that case, says Steven Friar of the Contractor Association, the city employee should get the job.

FRIAR: "This issue should be not about public versus private but about monopoly versus competition, completion is good, it will assure higher quality services at the most efficient prices that we can get as taxpayers."

In other cities that have opened public services to managed competition, city workers have won the bids most of the time. But their competitiveness may depend on whether the city cuts their training budgets or accepts contracts that offer their workers fewer health benefits.

Council President Scott Peters says he doesn't like the pressure to make such an important decision in a hurry when so much remains up in the air.

PETERS: "There's a lot of paper still flying around here and it's not clear, I think there may be some details still to tie down."

The details of how managed competition will be put into practice will not be in the ballot measure that goes to the voters. It will be in an ordinance that the mayor's office is working on. Peters says council members are concerned that, if the ballot measure passes, the ordinance could be waived sometime in the future when the political winds shift.

That means even if the council decides to put the measure on the ballot, voters wont be in control of how politicians use the tool in the future. Alison St John, KPBS News.

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