It’s clear that Vancouver is about to face one of the toughest budgets it's confronted in years. Without any serious budget trimming, taxes could be increased anywhere from 6-9% in Vancouver. That is way above the level of inflation, and it will likely not sit well with taxpayers. However, Vancouver is not alone in its budget woes.
So what options, besides tax increases, can your city council implement to help manage a growing budget? The obvious one is to contract out services. This move would be very controversial, but could potentially save city taxpayers a bundle.
So how would Council decide what to contract out? A wise politician once told me "if you can find the services delivered in the yellow pages, the government shouldn't be providing them. Government should be doing what government does best, provide services that the private sector doesn't."
Here are five possible examples of services that could be easily contracted out:
- Lawn Cutting: If you look in the yellow pages, there are hundreds of companies that offer lawn cutting services. If that’s the case, why do we need unionized staff to be cutting the lawn at city-owned sites? Do you remember when Vancouver's kids couldn’t play soccer during the 2007 CUPE strike because city workers refused to cut the lawns of local soccer fields? In some cases, when some brazen parents started cutting the lawn themselves, they encountered piles of nails and other dangerous materials strewn across the fields.
- Printing: The yellow pages list hundreds of printing companies that will produce any kind of brochures, flyers etc...at a reasonable cost. If that’s the case, why do we need unionized staff working at a city-operated print shop? Should your city be in the printing business?
- Cleaning services: There are numerous companies that offer cleaning services at a very economical rate. Meanwhile, some cities pays upwards of $20 per hour (including benefits) to hire unionized staff to clean the floors and garbage cans of city hall.
- Garbage pickup: There a number of private sector companies that are contracted with cities across the country to pick up residential and commercial garbage. In Vancouver, a big segment of the residential garbage pickup is done by unionized workers at a substantially higher cost to taxpayers. [It should be noted that the lack of garbage pickup was the union’s biggest bargaining chip when it came to civic labour negotiations. Nothing like a bunch of rotting garbage to encourage your civic politicians to sweeten an offer to quickly end a labour disruption. Privatize garbage pickup and CUPE loses a big bargaining chip at the negotiating table.]
- Snow removal: Most big cities have snow ploughs that are staffed by CUPE workers to clear the streets of snow and ice. As was witnessed during the recent Snowmageddon response in Metro Vancouver, clearly we need to be better prepared. Should city workers be the only ones clearing snow from our streets, or should private contractors be helping out when needed?
While I understand the issue of contracting out is controversial, and I don’t necessarily support it in every case, I think it does have its place within city government. If city governments are serious about trimming costs, they would consider at least three of the five possible options I’ve laid out. We're heading into a difficult budget season, let’s hope our civic leaders can think innovatively and show some leadership.