A costly con­tract­ing limit

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

Cal­i­for­nia has 58 county gov­ern­ments, each with its own pay­roll — and some of those pay­rolls are huge. Los An­ge­les County, for ex­am­ple, em­ploys more than 100,000 peo­ple, which comes to about one county worker for ev­ery 100 res­i­dents.

Coun­ties gen­er­ally do a lot of con­tract­ing as well, usu­ally for skills needed just for time­lim­ited projects. Boards of su­per­vi­sors ought to make de­ci­sions to hire or con­tract out based on what will best serve their con­stituents, but pub­lic em­ployee unions and their ri­vals in the con­tract­ing sec­tor try to in­flu­ence those de­ci­sions by of­fer­ing (or with­hold­ing) cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions. Their rel­a­tive power varies from county to county, but the unions gen­er­ally have the more or­ga­nized po­lit­i­cal clout. Ul­ti­mately it falls to vot­ers to de­cide whether their elected su­per­vi­sors are bud­get­ing, hir­ing and con­tract­ing re­spon­si­bly and to re­elect them, or oust them, as the cir­cum­stances war­rant. It’s not a per­fect sys­tem, but for the most part, it works.

Now pub­lic la­bor unions are try­ing to get a big­ger slice of the pie by pre­vail­ing on their friends in Sacra­mento to carry leg­is­la­tion that would se­verely limit the power of coun­ties to con­tract out for ser­vices. AB 1250, spon­sored by the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union and au­thored by Assem­bly­man Regi­nald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los An­ge­les), eas­ily passed in the As­sem­bly in June and will come be­fore the Se­nate when the Leg­is­la­ture re­con­venes later this month. The bill, which osten­si­bly seeks to block coun­ties from shift­ing work to con­trac­tors un­less do­ing so truly saves money, would ef­fec­tively com­pel su­per­vi­sors to pad county pay­rolls and would limit their op­tions to con­tract with ex­perts in par­tic­u­lar fields.

It doesn’t al­ways make sense for county work to be done in-house. For ex­am­ple, L.A. County em­ploys physi­cians, men­tal health ex­perts and so­cial work­ers to al­le­vi­ate home­less­ness, but to be ef­fec­tive they must be sup­ported by thou­sands of con­tract agen­cies that of­fer work­ers with ex­per­tise in hous­ing and other ser­vices. The same is true of other hu­man ser­vices, such as those for of­fend­ers newly re­leased from jail, not to men­tion en­vi­ron­men­tal, main­te­nance and data ser­vices.

SEIU and other pub­lic em­ployee unions pushed sim­i­lar bills in re­cent years to gain an un­fair ad­van­tage over con­trac­tors at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia and the state courts. Those bills made it to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk but for­tu­nately were ve­toed.

In­stead of send­ing this one on to the gov­er­nor, the Se­nate should note that there is even less of a con­tract­ing prob­lem to solve in coun­ties than there was at UC or in the courts, both of which are statewide sys­tems in which the pub­lic has only mar­ginal or in­di­rect over­sight. Each county, by con­trast, is man­aged by a board of su­per­vi­sors that an­swers di­rectly to lo­cal vot­ers. The pay­roll-con­tract­ing ra­tio is a func­tion of lo­cal needs, as it should be. Sacra­mento law­mak­ers should not im­pose a one-size-fits all rule that strips lo­cal su­per­vi­sors (and vot­ers) of their power to make their own staffing de­ci­sions.

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