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Guest opinion: City is 'No. 1' but that's not a good thing

 

By Mickie Winkler

Menlo Park has staffing problems, as demonstrated at the City Council meeting on Jan. 14. But neither city management nor council members are addressing them.

Here are some facts from the meetings and from the staff reports themselves.

Numbers: Menlo Park has more staff, higher total wages (including pensions and benefits), more staff per resident, at a higher cost per resident, than any other city our size in the nine Bay Area counties. We are No. 1 in all categories.

Engaged staff: A 2017 city survey revealed that only 29 percent of the survey respondents were "fully engaged," a full 15 percentage points below the local government benchmark supplied by the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement (the Institute).

Also, in that survey, 49 percent of the respondents were categorized as somewhat engaged, significantly higher than the local government benchmark. No one can be happy about this.

Retention: Last year, 21 regular employees left their employment with the city. Approximately 50 percent, 11, left Menlo Park to take a job with another public agency; and 33 percent, seven, retired.

The balance of departures, according to the survey, assumed roles in the private sector or resigned for personal reasons. "The most common reasons cited in exit interviews were shorter commutes and professional development opportunities (promotion or career path available in the new organization)."

In fact, most employees leave for better opportunities in larger cities. Menlo Park has always been a feeder organization with a high turnover rate.

Training time: As staff explained at the Jan. 14 council meeting, it takes months to make a new employee productive and presumably constrains other staff who must help the new employee. Staff endeavors to hire retired employees who don't require training and are no longer pensionable. That is good.

Pensions: Pension costs are on course to double by 2024 because CalPERS is changing its earning assumptions. Some of the increase is borne by employees themselves. But here's the kicker: When an employee leaves Menlo Park for another CalPERS city, he takes the pension with him. If that employee earns more at his new job, Menlo Park's pension obligation for that employee goes up, even though the employee no longer works in Menlo Park. This is a reciprocal arrangement but Menlo Park, a small city, is a net exporter of employees and is penalized by this rule.

Some staff and council members claim that Menlo Park offers more and better resident services, which is why its costs are so high. I encourage these members to actually study other cities. They suggest that some costs are covered by grants. And they suggest that many of its costs are recoverable by fees. But even if these statements are uniquely true, the grants and fees will disappear when a downturn occurs, but the number of staff will remain.

The only way to reduce staff size is to wait for an employee to voluntarily retire as our city manager said. We know that it is impossible to fire a staff member for almost any reason.

Clearly, Menlo Park is not organized to benefit its residents. I believe that it could outsource the child care facilities, sell the water department, join the county in managing and overseeing rents. (In the past, our staff costs in housing were higher than the benefits accrued to recipients.)

In any case, I believe that the City Council should hire a good consultant. The consultant should be answerable to the council, not staff. And the consultant should be charged with proposing two differing organizational plans for staffing Menlo Park.

There are currently the equivalent of 28.5 full-time vacancies in the city. The opportunity to reduce city staff is now.

Mickie Winkler is a former Menlo Park City Council member and mayor.

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