Discussion of a proposal to hire a private contractor to take over Long Beach’s street-sweeping services will be delayed until March now that city leaders decided to remove the item from the Feb. 18 City Council agenda. However, that didn’t stop a number of city workers from turning up in the Council Chamber Tuesday night to voice their concerns about the possibility of losing their municipal jobs.
In a cost-saving effort, Long Beach officials are reviewing several municipal services for potential contracting, according to a staff report from the city-manager and the financial-management offices. As part of the bidding process, city staff last year issued a request for proposal (RFP) to find qualified contractors who could offer street-sweeping services. Officials eventually selected Athens Services as their preferred vendor.
Athens offers significant savings to the City, according to the staff report. One analysis calculated that Long Beach’s annual cost to sweep the streets totals more than $5.39 million. It also determined that contracting the service would only cost more than $4.52 million. The report stated that the switch to an outside vendor could save $1.3 million annually to the General Fund. Athens also committed to buy the existing fleet of vehicle equipment. According to the report, this purchase would save the City an additional amount of more than $1.77 million in its General/Fleet Fund.
The report acknowledged that although the proposal would displace 19 full-time employees, Athens has agreed to offer jobs to qualified employees at their current salary rates. There is also an option for those employees who don’t want to quit their positions with the City in order to work for Athens. The City may offer to transfer these people to other departments or provide transfer-for-training opportunities to these workers, according to the staff report.
“Every employee will be offered an alternate city position,” the report stated.
However, this reassurance of continued employment isn’t enough for a number of the workers who showed up in the Council Chamber on Feb. 18.
Long Beach resident and city employee Regina Savage, 51, is one of the 13 street sweepers responsible for cleaning the roads of Long Beach. During the public-comment period, Savage pointed out that she and the other employees in her department take pride in their work and that many of them live in the city.
“I think once we go,” she told the Council Tuesday night, “you’ll do your best to contract everybody else…the city of Long Beach is built on people like us. We’re the people who are out there every day. We’re the people out there working. We’re the people out there taking care of the city.”
Savage noted that employees from other departments, including refuse, gas and public works, were also present in the Council Chamber. A number of people in the audience held up signs that said “S.O.S. Save Our Sweepers.”
Prior to the Council meeting, other street sweepers repeated Savage’s concern for their jobs and the fear that an outside company wouldn’t clean Long Beach’s roads as well as their department could.
Dimitri Crawford, 43, has served about 10 years with the City. He pointed out that the City reported a budget surplus this year. Crawford criticized the choice of Athens and picked apart the company’s commitment to offer jobs with the same salary. He said he worried that his pension and medical benefits would stop.
“They’re concerned about the bottom line of money,” Crawford said of Athens. “They’re not going to take pride in the city like we do, because we live here.”
Crawford has lived in Long Beach for over 40 years.
Sexton Thompson has worked as a motor-sweeper operator for about 11 years. When asked for his opinion on Athens’s offer to hire the sweepers, the 43-year-old asked how long the company would keep him employed. He feared that he would only be working for Athens for a temporary time and that he would lose his benefits.
“It may be somewhere I don’t want to go,” Thompson said. “That’s my concern.”
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (also known as the Machinists Union) represents many of the affected employees. A union spokesman acknowledged that the City did commit to offer employees other positions within the municipal organization, however, he also confirmed that he didn’t think that this is a promise Long Beach would be able to keep.
“There aren’t a lot of jobs available,” Machinists Union representative David Sterling said in an interview Tuesday night.
He explained that many of the employees are classified as “sweeper operators” and that no other city departments operate sweeping equipment.
“We’ve gone through numerous years of elimination of vacant positions and eliminations of salary savings [and] lay-offs of personnel,” he said.
Sterling added that the union has requested information from the City over the last two months, but it has not received copies of the contracts proposed by Athens or any of the other bidders.
He said that the union wants to be a part of the decision-making process. He explained that the City is being “premature” to consider contracting services because no one attempted to review how to streamline the current operations and take cost-effective measures. He argued to keep the street-sweeping operation under city management.
He pressed for transparency from the City. He criticized several aspects of the analysis. Sterling especially scrutinized details of Athens’s offer to buy the City’s equipment and the City’s conclusion that the purchase would generate a one-time savings of about $1.7 million. Sterling said that City policy already requires that the equipment must be sold at the end of its life span, whether or not the services are contracted. He added that there are other ways to save on costs, especially if the City changed some of the fleet operations. He discussed the possibility of replacing some of the equipment with efficient and cost-effective machines or modifying work schedules.
Sterling echoed workers’ concerns that Athens may not keep its promise to employ the city workers who choose to transfer to the private contractor.
He stressed that Athens is not a union company. Sterling offered a bleak possibility for the city employees who join Athens because of the promise that they would keep their current salary. He warned that they could be “farmed out as soon as possible to limit costs to the company.”
The union spokesman emphasized that in this scenario, workers would be without an organization to represent them.
“There’s no guarantee of any kind of rights,” Sterling said. “It’s a completely at-will position.”
The Signal Tribune attempted to reach the city manager’s office to discuss several of the issues raised by Sterling, however the media contact did not respond to specific questions prior to press time.
Thomas Marshall, another city employee and Long Beach resident who has spent 20 years as motor-sweeper operator for the City, repeated the idea that the workers should be involved in the decision to outsource the work to a private vendor.
“We don’t actually feel we’re getting a fair shake here,” Marshall said. “We haven’t been allowed to be part of this process, the RFP. We’ve been pretty much left out.”