No place for shortcuts when it comes to budget cuts

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To the editor:

Councilwoman Alicia Hughes’ proposal to cut $7.5 million from the city budget just by cutting contract and consulting fees is another example of shortcut, “look-Ma-no-hands” budgeting that avoids making tough budget decisions.

In their book, Governing by Network, Stephen Goldsmith and William Eggers describe how governments have increasingly come to rely “less on public employees in traditional roles and more on a web of partnerships, contracts and alliances to do the public’s work,” overseen by public sector managers. Governments are finding that private sector and nonprofit partners can often implement government policies more efficiently and effectively than doing things in-house. 

Contracting out government tasks is no panacea. A few years ago, in the same budget year, the Alexandria city manager proposed to contract out recycling services while taking mosquito eradication services back in-house. I was the chair of the city’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee at the time and, after close examination, we decided that both proposals were sound. Every situation is different. But contracting out is often a good option. 

A lot of city contracts and consultants are required by law (e.g. external audits) and they often involve using consultants with technical expertise city employees don’t have. Using outside consultants also allows the city to temporarily “surge” resources when necessary without adding to the city’s payroll. 

Make no mistake, cutting $7.5 million in contract and consulting services means cutting city services and programs by that amount. And it would cripple the city’s ability to utilize private sector and nonprofit partners on projects where they could implement city policy more efficiently. 

It’s tempting for elected officials to find a deus ex machina to cut spending so they don’t have to get their hands dirty, but the responsible thing to do is to go over the city budget line-by-line and make the hard choices.

Tim Lovain

Former Alexandria City 

Council member


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