Consolidation shouldn’t be shelved away

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 23, 2010

The Minnesota humorist Garrison Keillor once made a joke about the fictional Lake Wobegon newspaper and its annual coverage of fall.

When the leaves begin to turn, the editor of the newspaper pulls out the annual leaf picture from his file drawer and places it on the front page. The same photo of the same leaf has been running in the paper for years.

Despite the fact that the photo runs every year, it continues to be popular among readers.

I am reminded of this story each year when city budget talks ratchet up — not so much because the city takes out loans to cover holes in the city budget each year, but because such practices lead to annual questions about city and county consolidation.

Elected leaders agree: If consolidating city and county services saves everyone money, then they will support it. Making government run efficiently is a noble idea, they say, but specifics are needed.

After a few attempts to discuss the issue, the consolidation idea gets shelved away until next year, like that fictional leaf photo in Lake Wobegon.

Up until June, the city of Maywood, Calif., had been acting the same way. Despite being identified as the most financially troubled city in the country, city councilmen ignored the signs that their city was headed into bankruptcy.

Faced with few options, the Maywood city council did the unthinkable — they fired nearly the entire city payroll and outsourced each and every job.

With one vote, the council effectively outsourced all of its services: police, city planning, parks and recreation, public works — everything. All positions were dismissed except the city attorney, city manager and elected officials.

Under the city’s plan, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department patrols the streets and the neighboring city of Bell provides all of Maywood’s municipal services, including City Hall staffing.

After the council vote, reaction from the public was swift. Predictions of anarchy and chaos emerged from citizens who feared for their safety. Angry city employees lashed out for fear of being laid-off in a recession.

Interestingly just 23 days since Maywood outsourced services, what everyone feared hasn’t happened. In fact, according to the New York Times, for a city where angry, heated town hall meetings are the norm, most of Maywood’s residents say the recent change has done nothing but improve the city.

Many city workers who feared unemployment were quickly rehired on contract.

Insurance premiums have fallen to $200,000 from $1 million. Contracting with the city of Bell will save Maywood nearly $165,000 a year.

A badly-run town is now looked upon as a municipal genius, the Times reported.

Can Natchez learn something from Maywood’s genius? Definitely.

Does Natchez need fire all of its employees? Probably not.

Natchez is not Maywood. But Maywood’s actions demonstrate that outsourcing and contracting services is possible without the sky falling.

Instead of waiting for legislative approval, could Natchez begin to contract some of its services with the county? Police protection and pubic works come immediately to mind. What other services could be contracted out? What about the city planning office and parks and recreation?

Natchez may not ever face Maywood’s dire situation, but it doesn’t give us an excuse to shelve away consolidation for another year.

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or bey e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.