OAKDALE -- During a meeting packed with Public Works Department employees and their supporters, the City Council voted Monday night to start a process that could lead to disbanding the department, laying off nearly all its workers and outsourcing its functions to private contractors.
The vote was 3-1 with Councilwoman Kathy Morgan casting the dissenting vote. She said she was not ready to make a decision without more discussion.
The three other council members emphasized that this was a difficult decision with potentially painful consequences for city employees, but that they had to explore all cost-saving options because of the city's grim finances.
"We're in a situation in Oakdale where the money is running thin," Councilman Tom Dunlop said before the council vote. "If it wasn't for Measure O (a temporary half-cent city sales tax), we'd be in dire straits."
The council's vote authorizes city officials to solicit proposals for five of public works' six functions: parks, administration, streets and utilities, electrical systems and waste-water treatment. The city would keep the two mechanics who work in the city garage.
The schedule calls for city officials to start with parks this month and work their way down the list, ending with proposals for the waste-water treatment plant in December. Public works employees also can submit proposals as independent contractors.
The proposals will let the city compare what it now pays versus what private contractors would charge the city.
Mayor Pat Paul said she wants public works employees' ideas for saving money to come before the council every time it considers private contractors' proposals. She added that the council would seek public comment before deciding whether to privatize a public works function.
The council chamber was packed with more than 60 audience members; most of them were public works employees and their family members and supporters.
Despite assurances from council members that no decisions have been made, the city employees and their supporters left the meeting disappointed.
"It's ridiculous," said Mike Eggener, a retired Oakdale police sergeant and the business agent for the union representing rank-and-file public works employees.
The council took about an hour of testimony before discussing the proposal and voting on it. More than a dozen people addressed the council, and no one spoke in favor of privatizing public works.
Public works employees told the council of their dedication and pride in providing residents with clean, safe drinking water, well-maintained roads and other serv-ices.
"Come down and ride with my crew one day," said Rich O'Hara, who oversees six street and sewer division workers. "Look down those manholes.
Get out in traffic and dodge those 2,000-pound bullets.
"My guys put their life on the line to fix potholes, paint streets and maintain the sewers. Outsourcing is not cheaper. I don't see how you can take a crew from any contractor and match it with my crew.
I think this city, this council would be making a huge mistake to outsource."
Other public works employees said the problem is that the department has not had effective leadership, and the city should not try to solve its financial problems on their backs. Joe Leach, the city's most recent public works director, left his position Friday after nearly three years with the city.
City officials said they are exploring outsourcing and privatization because the city is not financially self-sustaining because of the recession, flat revenues, and rising costs for employee health care and pensions.
They said the city faces daunting financial challenges, such as a $700,000 to $1 million annual revenue shortfall in sewer revenues.
Interim City Manager Stan Feathers said in an interview that public works has an annual budget of about $5.9 million with about half of that going to salaries, wages, benefits and other compensation for employees. The department has about 30 employees, which is about a third of the city's work force.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.