Several landscaping firms, as well as the city's Public Works Department, recently bid on the city's annual landscape and lighting maintenance work. TruGreen LandCare's bid of $593,000 was significantly lower than the other bids - and was more than half a million less than the Antioch Public Works Department's bid of $1.1 million.
Contracting out maintenance of parks, street medians and lighting with TruGreen would result in a savings of $273,000 annually to the city's General Fund and another $235,000 annual savings to the city's landscape and lighting assessment districts.
Several council members said at their July 24 meeting that they would not go ahead with the privatization plan if it meant laying off current city workers.
Public Works Director Pat Scott assured the council that "nobody walks," meaning that no one will lose their job. He said he has not been filling vacancies in the Public Works Department for much of this year so as to free up positions. Nine full-time workers would be affected if the city stops doing its own maintenance.
While most council members were interested in TruGreen's proposal and gave the go-ahead for Scott to further discuss it with the Fairfield-based company, Councilman Reggie Moore was in strong opposition to privatizing city landscape maintenance.
"It really struck me odd that this one company came in significantly lower than anyone else," said Moore. "My experience in life has taught me that you get what you pay for in life. So I have some real problems with this. I don't think I'm going to be supportive. I believe in-house we do a better job. Our workers take more care and we probably get a better product at the end of the day."
TruGreen has been providing landscape maintenance for the city of Fairfield for 12 years, Vallejo for 10 years and Solano for three years. All three cities are happy with the company's work, according to Scott.
"Based on this information, staff believes TruGreen will be able to honor the terms of the conditions outlined in the (bid proposal)," Scott told the council.
TruGreen Branch Manager Martin Becker cited several reasons for being able provide a significantly lower bid than other companies, especially in comparison to the bid by the city, which uses unionized workers.
"You have got to look at the labor savings alone - it's tremendous," Becker told the council. "Also our overhead and equipment and how we go about doing the job, our levels of efficiency."
He invited council members to inspect for themselves the work his company is doing.
"You're going to get a beautiful landscape from us," he said. "I urge you to go look at some of our work. I can sit here and tell you all day that we're going to do a good job. Go look at Rancho Solano in Fairfield. Go look at Green Valley. I can give you a whole list of jobs that we do. I think that's important."
On the other side of the equation, public works employees filled several rows of the council chambers, and union representative Wayne Burgess urged the council to keep the work in-house.
"We find lowest bid usually means lowest quality and lowest quantity of work provided," he said. "We've seen this many times in the past when city employees are sent in to finish or correct work that has been done poorly or plain overlooked by subcontractors. Who will clean up the mess left behind by these subcontractors at the end of the contract when they or the city decides it's not worth continuing this contract?
"We've heard a lot of talk lately about quality of life in Antioch. We don't think that using the lowest bidder will improve the quality of life in Antioch. And taking jobs or moving jobs around, local taxes out of town to pay subcontractors who also pay lower wages will only harm the quality of life.
"Poorly trained subcontractors working in traffic and areas where public safety is of concern will open the city to lawsuits that our training has avoided in the past. We have a fantastic safety record in the Public Works Department. Bringing outside contractors into the city will only add more vehicles into a very congested traffic situation."
While Moore was the most anti-privatization councilman, Arne Simonsen was the most outspoken in favor of it.
"It was Democratic President Jimmy Carter that issued the executive order that simply stated the United States government is not in competition with its citizens," said Simonsen. "And it made sense. We rely, particularly as a city, on revenue. And Jimmy Carter realized that if government was doing everything, there wouldn't be businesses employing people to pay all those taxes. He was quite right in that.
"In this case we are really looking at efficiencies. I've been to Fairfield; I go there quite often. Quite frankly, I'm very impressed with how things look up there."
Councilman Jim Davis cited the $1.7 million deficit this year in the city's General Fund budget as a reason to look into the cost savings provided by privatization.
Councilman Brian Kalinowski, who has been critical of the quality of the city's landscape maintenance for years and first suggested that the city look into privatization, opposes using the cost savings to pay down the deficit. He prefers to use the extra money to improve the quality of maintenance, particularly on trails, citing a case where exercise equipment has been removed from a trail because it couldn't be maintained properly.
"From my perspective, the only way we can increase the amount of work done, at least preliminarily in this report, is to look at the TruGreen contracting concept," said Kalinowski. "I recognize that the devil's in the details.
"One of those issues for me are the trails where we are talking about litter pickup on a weekly basis. I have a desire to see that accelerated and see what we can do for the maintenance on the trails specifically. My position is to maximize the use of the funds that we currently have. I would hope that the council agrees that we reuse the money … for better projects in the city."
Mayor Don Freitas said, "My bias has always been to keep the work in-house, simply because I think ownership is critical. People take pride in their work; it becomes a part of their life. My personal opinion is that the work usually is done better and more efficiently. I have always maintained - even though I have certain political biases - I'll be open to anybody's suggestion as they come forward.
"I want to underscore there's absolutely no way I would embrace this if it meant any layoff of any existing employee, period. I want to be very clear about that. No one should be harmed that's presently employed in the city of Antioch.
"The big question I have is the level of service that's being provided … today versus what's being proposed. The council and community, frankly, would like to have even more service provided.
"So as this goes forward, I think that from my perspective, yes, you can take a look at the option (to contract with TruGreen). I think you're hearing a lot of hesitancy amongst all of the council members with regard to this particular proposal. A lot more information needs to come back to us. But I would look at the option."