Faced with a $118 million budget deficit, the city of San Jose, Calif., recently decided it could no longer afford its own janitors. So the city's budget called for dropping its custodial staff and hiring outside contractors to clean its city hall and airport, saving about $4 million.
To keep all its swimming pools open and staffed, the city is replacing some city workers with contractors.
"These are cases where the question is being asked, 'Is this a core service at the city level?' " said Michelle McGurk, senior policy adviser to the San Jose mayor.
After years of whittling staff and cutting back on services, towns and cities are now outsourcing some of the most basic functions of local government, from policing to trash collection. Services that cities can no longer afford to provide are being contracted to private vendors, counties or even neighboring towns.
The move saves cities budget-crushing costs of employee benefits like health insurance and retirement. Critics say contracting means giving up local control and personalized services.
Cities say they have little choice. Municipalities across the U.S. will face a projected shortfall of $56 to $86 billion between 2010 and 2012, according to a report from the National League of Cities.
"You can do across-the-board cuts for only so long," said Andrew Belknap, Western Regional Vice President for Management Partners, a government consulting group. "It's gone from the tactical cost cutting to get through a recession, to in some cases saying we have to exit that business or service altogether."
Maywood, a tiny city southeast of Los Angeles, is taking contracting to the extreme. The city of around 40,000 is letting go of its entire staff and contracting with outsiders to perform all city services. The city is disbanding its police force and handing public safety over to the Los Angeles County Sheriff. Its neighbor, the city of Bell, will take over running Maywood's City Hall.