Enough with blaming public employees for all of America's problems. Last week public employees in Oregon marched on the state Capitol with a billion dollars worth of recommendations for government efficiencies and revenue enhancements. On Monday in Lansing, Michigan, public employees presented their own report, New Solutions for Michigan, with concrete suggestions on how state leaders can to reduce Michigan's budget deficit and improve services at the same time.
Like any other job, the people doing the work know how it's done and how to do it better. Members of SEIU Local 517 in Michigan started by sharing their own ideas for increasing efficiency, cutting costs and improving the quality of services. Soon they were joined by state employees united in UAW, AFSCME and MSEA, along with A Better Michigan Future, a coalition of 48 nonprofit organizations. Together they represented a broad range of agencies and interests, and over 30,000 state employees.
First, the workers called attention to excessive management. New Solutions for Michigan reveals that the state workforce averages fewer than six non-supervisory staff for every manager and/or supervisor (5.9:1) -- well above other states' norms.
The Michigan workforce is twice as top heavy as Texas, which won bipartisan support for legislation that set a minimum ratio of 11:1. Last year Iowa enacted legislation to increase the number of staff per manager from 14:1 in 2010 to 20:1 in 2016. Oregon, which is not as top-heavy as Michigan, is considering action on SEIU's recommended target of 11:1.
Increasing the ratio in Michigan by just one staff per manager would yield a savings of $75 million annually in wages alone. Moving Michigan toward an 11:1 target in the long term could save hundreds of millions in annual spending without jeopardizing essential services.
Second, New Solutions for Michigan proposes that contract costs be examined along with state employee salaries and benefits. Using data newly available on the Michigan Transparency website, the report demonstrates that contract payments amount to 26 cents for every $1 of state spending, compared to 10 cents for state worker compensation. Michigan spends two-and-a-half times more on contractors than its own workforce, and has committed billions of dollars in long-term contracts with out-of-state firms.
State agencies routinely spend millions for contract services -- on everything from computer programming to motor vehicle maintenance -- to the tune of $1.1 billion annually (without counting community health or colleges). Workers estimate that a 10 percent cut in contract costs --by seeking savings from vendors or paring down contracted services -- would save Michigan $110 million annually.
The report highlights two types of contracts, transportation and information technology, where contract vendors provide services that state employees can often provide at lower cost. Lead technicians in the Michigan Department of Transportation work side by side with contractors doing the same work -- but the fully loaded cost of the state worker, with salary and benefits, is $54 per hour, whereas contractors range from $86 to $122 per hour.
David Baker, a member of AFSCME who works in a secure residential treatment facility for youth, is especially outraged at the contracting. He says contractors charge higher fees every year, and now they're getting tax breaks too. When we're cutting schools, police and other services, he asks "why are contractors not being asked to share in the sacrifice?"
The final recommendation pulls it all together -- inviting collaboration with agency personnel at every level to search for new ideas. Gina Nelson, a caseworker with 34 years of experience with the Michigan Department of Human Services and a member of UAW, summed it up nicely. "For every idea like these," she said, report in hand, "workers across our state have hundreds more."
Governor Snyder said he wants to work together to fix Michigan's problems. The workers are ready, willing and able. The new report is a strong step in the right direction. Let's hope they can continue together.
This article originally appeared at SEIU.