Community Columns

City Council should focus on saving jobs, not cutting them

Now that Modesto City Council members have solved the crisis created by Dumpster-diving identity thieves, it's likely they will once more turn their attention to the budget crisis. They appear to have found a solution in a shortsighted but popular plan to privatize city services. This time, the discussion concerns firing 14 custodians -- people who take out trash, sweep floors and scrub toilets.

In other words, the people who provide us with a reason to feel pride every time we walk through spotless halls or use a clean restroom in some, but not all, of our public buildings. It's only some but not all because the maintenance of some of those restrooms already has been outsourced.

The City Council has dropped the layoff ax on folks who once provided park maintenance services, a cost-cutting effort described by The Bee as "a successful move" ("Modesto council tackles hard job of eliminating budget shortfall," Jan. 4, Our View).

I don't know what The Bee meant by "successful." Shouldn't our civic leaders be concerned about preserving or creating jobs? Haven't we all heard that somewhere? I mean "good" jobs -- those that provide a living wage, medical benefits and the prospect of a stable retirement.

People with secure jobs contribute to the stability of the community. Regular paychecks mean people can own a home and dream of sending their children to college. Homeownership gives people a stake in what happens, a reason to care enough to pick up litter in the streets rather than waiting for someone else to do it. People who have a vested interest in the place they live police themselves.

It's disingenuous to think the existing custodial staff has a real opportunity to win back this work through competitive bidding. If the city plans to save $275,000, then any successful bid will have to be $275,000 lower than current costs, meaning a cut in pay or benefits.

Just as surely as Stanislaus County became poorer with the closing of the Hershey chocolate plant in Oakdale, cost-cutting moves like the one contemplated by the city will leave the community with fewer good neighbors and less stability. The corporate leaders at Hershey had plenty of reasons to think about enhancing value for their stockholders and not a single reason to think about our community. Not so the City Council.

Council members won't go as far as Mexico to lower labor costs; they will outsource the jobs right here at home by calling it privatization.

Last summer, the council approved pay raises for a number of employees. It's not a stretch to believe those raises are being paid with the $275,000 they plan to take from custodians.

A better solution would be across-the-board cuts, letting everyone share the pain while preserving all the good jobs we can. The community is reeling from the impact of fair trade agreements and the subprime lending crisis. It's a mistake on the part of the City Council to treat its public service responsibility as if it were simply making a business decision. Civic leadership is more than saving a few dollars.

Bearden recently retired as chairman of the Empire Union School District Board of Trustees. E-mail him at columns@modbee.com.

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