March 5 2015 12:18 PM

After deep cuts, city’s vehicle-repair shop struggles to keep sweepers on the road

Street Sweeping Sign
Joshua Emerson Smith

“I’m tired of living in a trashcan,” Uptown resident Laura Levine told members of the San Diego City Council's Environment Committee at a meeting on Wednesday. “I go out on Sundays with my broom and my sweeper and pick up the trash, and it’s a shame that in this magnificent city, we have to live with trash.”

In recent months, more than half of the city’s street sweepers have been routinely down for repairs, according to officials with the Transportation and Storm Water division. In the last three months, of the city’s 18 sweepers, on average only about seven sweepers have been operational at one time.

The issue didn’t just draw the ire of residents dissatisfied with their city services. Elected officials also raised concerns about the beleaguered Fleet Maintenance Services Division, which repairs the city’s more than 4,000 vehicles, including garbage trucks, fire engines and street sweepers.

At the committee meeting, City Councilmember Todd Gloria, who said his office has been “inundated” with calls and emails concerning the lack of street sweeping, asked why fleet services hasn’t been able to keep the vehicles up and running.

“Obviously, if half the fleet is not working, there’s probably a problem in the fleet division,” Gloria said. “If memory serves, we’ve experienced this exact same problem in the Fire Rescue Department with fire engines that were not available—very scarily so.”

Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office will look into the issue, Mike Hansen, the mayor’s environmental-policy advisor, said at the meeting.

“We are still meeting or exceeding what’s required by our state municipal storm-water permit,” he said. “Per our street-sweeping schedule, we have fallen behind a little bit over the last several months. However, we’re still at or above our requirements.”

More than a year ago, CityBeat exposed the city’s inability to keep up with basic repairs of its fire engines due to lack of staffing, which resulted under the so-called managed-competition program.

Approved by voters in 2006, the program pits private companies against public employees in a bidding contest for city contracts. The Mayor’s office has the final say on who wins, but a private-sector bid must cost at least 10 percent less than the proposal from city workers.

In 2011, fleet services underwent a managed competition that cut jobs by more than 30 percent and resulted in years of labor negotiations. As a result, many employees left fleet services fearing job security. The division has been understaffed and is now preparing to hire more workers.

At the same time, the city has increased its vehicle fleet, increasing the division’s workload, said James Nagelvoort, director of public works, at a recent City Council meeting.

“What’s driving all of that is not having enough people necessarily to take care of all the additional vehicles above and beyond the scope of what was originally bid,” he said. “In fleet division right now, we have a number of vacancies.”

In the meantime, the city will need to shell out roughly $900,000 in additional overtime costs for the division, according to a mid-year budget report from the Independent Budget Analyst (IBA).

“I remember when the managed competition for that department was performed, there was a radical reduction in headcount in order to achieve the savings that were created, only to now have a situation where we’re spending a whole lot of money on overtime,” Gloria said. “It strikes me as being an example of why this particular managed competition may not be working.”

While it’s yet to be seen whether the division will be able to keep up with repairs, managed competition is projected to shave off about $4.2 million annually to fleet services’ roughly $50-million budget, according to the IBA.

Four city divisions have undergone managed competitions, including fleet services, street and sidewalk maintenance, publishing and landfill operations. In all contests, public employees dramatically underbid the private sector, triggering a series of deep cuts.

After a report contracted by the Mayor’s office called for reforms to managed competition, Faulconer announced last summer that he would overhaul the process. However, his office has yet to release a specific proposal and declined to comment for this story.