It’s Just Not Right

The economy may be struggling, government budgets may be tight, but large layoffs of public-sector workers are not by definition something to celebrate

One sad consequence of the collapse in the economy is the way certain groups of people have been denigrated.

The unemployed, for example. Argue all day if you want about the wisdom of extending unemployment benefits for people out of work for long spells. But don’t imply that those people — who include a brother, a nephew, and a close friend of mine — are for the most part loafers who will coast along doing nothing for as long as they can get regular checks from the government.

And preach to your heart’s content about “limited government,” but don’t imply that government workers as a class are expendable and unproductive, and that it’s inherently good to cut staffs and put state and local employees — like a sister, a brother-in-law, and a son-in-law of mine — on the street.

Nothing to celebrate

The inescapable fact is that shortfalls in state and local budgets are leading to layoffs of government workers, perhaps especially teachers. It would be nice if as a society we felt at least a little bit bad about that.

After all, we built things like streets, police and fire departments, park systems, water and wastewater systems, and schools for good reason, supporting them through taxes and fees approved by elected representatives (you know, that stuff about “consent of the governed”).

Now we’re chipping away at what we built, and the mere fact of “putting government on a diet” is not something to celebrate. Efficiency is great, and without a doubt, governments, like any kind of organization, could be more efficient. But when we start slashing staffs and railing against excessive pay and benefits for government workers, what are the long-term consequences?

Is there a point at which government jobs become so unstable and so financially unattractive that the most able people look elsewhere, and before we know it our public agencies are staffed almost solely by the mediocre and incompetent?

Seeing the positives

Cynics might say, “That’s what we have already.” And of course, we all know the stories about the public works employees leaning on their shovels, the surly clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the overly picky inspector in the county building department. Of course, those are stereotypes, not unlike the private sector’s featherbedding auto worker, rude customer service representative, and Peter Principle middle manager (promoted to his or her level of incompetence).

But if one takes a generally positive view of people, as I do, then one assumes that most people in the world of work, private or public sector, care about what they do and perform the best they can with the talent they have and the resources they’re given. Which means the lazy, negligent, uncaring and inept are the minority.

A big part of this magazine’s charter is to celebrate part of the majority — public infrastructure professionals who do capable and exemplary work. Needless to say, in my role as editor, I encounter such people all the time.

Shining examples

Who do we have in this issue alone? Well, there’s Scott Emerick, Public Works Department Distribution and Collection Division superintendent in Billings, Mont. He and his team have deployed pipe bursting with fusible PVC pipe to replace old cast-iron water mains and upsize the line diameters from four to eight inches to improve flows for fire protection.

By using that technology, and by letting city crews do the work instead of hiring consultants and contractors as many cities do, his division is completing the upgrades at nearly 50 percent less cost than for conventional methods. In other words, city residents can thank Emerick and staff for helping to hold their water rates down while adding a measure of protection for their homes and possessions.

In Hawaii, there’s Iwalani Sato, community relations specialist in stormwater management for the City and County of Honolulu. She’s working diligently, one person or neighborhood at a time, to educate and enlist residents in the importance of good practices that help prevent runoff pollution. Because of Sato and her staff, the aquifers and the ocean are cleaner.

And then there’s Jim Butler and his team in the Public Works Department in Killeen, Texas. Guided by a Water Conservation Plan and a Water and Wastewater Master Plan, they’re upgrading metering technology, deploying new flushing devices, adding storage facilities and upsizing waterlines to help the city keep supplying high-quality, cost-effective water service in the face of rapid growth.

It takes resources

You can read their stories on these pages. They are just three of the outstanding people we have profiled in MSW magazine over the years, and all of those we’ve profiled add up to only a tiny fraction of the excellent people at work in infrastructure jobs all over the country.

When we start to chop away budgets for public services, pretty soon we start hindering the ability of people like these to be as effective as possible. Good work, after all, takes resources, and those include quality people. So let’s remember that amid all the talk about fiscal austerity in government, sometimes cutting budgets for short-term conditions can be a classic case of penny wise and pound foolish.


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