A construction crew works on an affordable housing project near San Francisco’s Hunters Point Shipyard on May 19, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

California should mandate competitive bidding for government contracts

California counties can’t do everything themselves. Public employees do much of the work, but at times, counties need to hire private contractors to do what nobody on staff has the training or skills to handle.

In San Francisco, as in other counties, community-based nonprofits have contracts for hundreds of services — and they and their workers often do an excellent job.

But there are times when counties “contract out” work that their own employers were doing, supposedly to save money. And that often leads to serious problems.

Private contractors don’t have the same requirements to report how they spend their money. Often, for-profit contractors cut corners on services and performance to fatten the bottom line.

So why should private contractors who get public money be held to lower standards?

AB 1250, a bill that has passed the Assembly and is now before the state Senate, would make sure they aren’t. The bill would require that counties make sure that they are saving the taxpayers money before they hire private outfits to provide public services.

The measure mandates competitive bidding for most county government contracts, requires counties to demonstrate that the contract will save the taxpayers money, sets quality standards for services and includes protection for workers.

It’s not a radical idea: The state of California already has similar requirements for private contractors, as do the state’s schools and community colleges. What AB 1250 would do is apply the same rules to California counties.

We have seen endless examples of what can go wrong when a private outfit takes over public services and tries to cut corners. In Alameda County, a jail inmate died in 2010 when a private company hired to handle jail health services put people lacking the proper training in charge of medical intake; the taxpayers were on the hook for $8 million in a legal settlement.

In Los Angeles, four children died from abuse or neglect in foster homes run by a private contractor — and the taxpayers wound up forking over $327 million more than they would have if the county had provided the services.

A private ambulance company in Santa Clara County endangered lives by responding too slowly to emergencies.

The list goes on.

Opponents of the measure say AB 1250 is so onerous that it will prevent counties from saving money by allowing private contractors to do work that county employees aren’t qualified to do. That’s nonsense — the counties will still be able to hire contractors, just as the state does. But for a change, those contractors will have some accountability to the taxpayers.

Lobbyists for the counties are trying to frighten nonprofits, which often do critical and important contract work providing public services, by saying that the bill will end their contracts. But the measure would not affect existing contracts or contract renewals, or even contracts for specialized work that county employees aren’t doing. It would only apply to new contracts in which work currently done by public employees would be turned over to private outfits.

State Sen. Scott Wiener will be a critical vote on this bill. Wiener was a city employee — a deputy city attorney — and served on the Board of Supervisors, so he should understand how important it is to have public oversight over the use of public dollars — and how quickly things can go wrong when that oversight is missing.

As currently amended, the bill would not apply to San Francisco, which is a city and county (and which already has standards for outside contracts). But he should know how important it is for the people of California to know that they are getting the services they deserve for the money they pay.

We urge Wiener to support open government, accountable contracts and worker protections, and vote for AB 1250.

Joseph Bryant is an Employment and Training Specialist with the City and County of San Francisco and the San Francisco Regional Vice President for SEIU Local 1021.

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