Monday, February 16, 2004

Save cost-saving competition


Now that city of Cincinnati officials tested a cost-saving system and proved it works, Mayor Charlie Luken has changed his mind and decided to kill it.

Luken and Councilman David Crowley introduced a resolution Wednesday to replace managed competition with "service reviews and process redesign." Managed competition lets private companies bid against city crews to provide city services - and may the cleverest, cost-saving bid win. Council should reject the switch as an unapologetic move to guarantee city union workers' jobs.

Luken's and Crowley's timing would be laughable, if Cincinnati didn't face budget deficits projected at $60 million by 2008. Last week, as they moved to scuttle competition, City Manager Valerie Lemmie was awarding the city's top prize, a $3,000 check, to a Public Services crew for using the managed competition process to save taxpayers $206,000. Workers kept their jobs, divided street-cleaning chores with a private Columbus-based firm, and nearly doubled street lane-miles swept.

The Luken-Crowley motion offered no evidence that "Innovative Service Solutions" can save tax dollars the way managed competition can. Service reviews have been around a long time.

"I don't think service reviews are anything close to being a viable substitute for managed competition," said Councilman Pat DeWine, who with David Pepper and John Cranley pushed hard for the latter. It's competition that makes city workers devise innovative solutions to save tax dollars and preserve their jobs. City Hall officials moved at snail speed in adopting managed competition, but last June, council finally voted for the street sweeping deal. The mayor signed off on it, and the manager even hired a "managed competition czar" away from Procter & Gamble to expand the cost-saving method to other city operations.

But then Luken, in his Feb. 2 State of the City address, said he wanted to change the "managed competition" czar to an "efficiency" czar, which city workers roundly applauded. His explanation sounded like a re-election speech: "I have always said that I will not take a city job away only so someone else can be paid less money with fewer benefits for the same work. Let us, together, continue to look for ways to provide better service for less dollars, but let us remove the threat of job loss from people who are serving us well every day."

Since no city worker lost a job, wages or benefits in the street-sweeping deal, it seems odd that the mayor, now of all times, would be "convinced" that savings from managed competition are bad for "working families of Cincinnati." Opponents of such a proven cost-saver owe it to city taxpayers to explain how they intend to do away with a $60 million deficit. The city's $54 million "windfall" from health insurer Anthem's conversion to a for-profit company papered over recent city deficits, but that Anthem money is mostly spoken-for now. The city needs more than wishful thinking to save tens of millions of dollars and still finance the projects needed for recovery.

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