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Whacking into the weeds of city worker numbers

Santa Fe’s airport is run by city government, in contrast to other municipalities where airports are managed by separate entities. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Santa Fe’s airport is run by city government, in contrast to other municipalities where airports are managed by separate entities. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — It looks like some jobs will have to go, and maybe some services, as the Santa Fe City Council tries to trim the city budget and wean it from the revenue piling up from increased water rates that were supposed to raise money for water infrastructure and future water supply.

But just how fat the city budget is these days remains open to debate.

A new survey, this one by the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce with some help from city government, suggests that Santa Fe’s municipal workforce is way, way too fat.

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The study released this week compared Santa Fe with a hodge-podge of small- to mid-sized American cities. Western burgs like Las Cruces, Flagstaff, Colorado Springs, Lubbock and Boise were included, along with places like Omaha, Neb., with a population of more than a half-million on the plains of the Midwest and its state’s biggest airport; Topeka, Kan.; Des Moines, Iowa; and Sarasota, Fla., among others.

The chamber’s results were that, on average, Santa Fe had 64 percent more city workers per capita than the other cities – a shocking statistic that, if it stands up, should have non-public employee taxpayers up in arms.

Local newspaper reports, including in Journal North, over the past few months have also compared Santa Fe’s municipal workforce with those of other New Mexico cities and some similar-sized cities in nearby states, with unflattering results similar to the chamber’s.

Some found Santa Fe municipal worker numbers have been double or more what other municipal governments employ on a per capita basis.

There’s a lot to consider in making these comparisons, of course. Can there be an “apples to apples” comparison?

Some city governments, like Santa Fe’s, provide water, sewer and garbage collection services, and some don’t, with regional or city/county entities sometimes taking on these functions. These regional organizations may be supported with city dollars among other funding sources, but their workers aren’t considered city employees.

Santa Fe city government runs the local airport, while other cities have independent airport commissions. Bus services are often under a regional or metro authority, not within a single municipal government as in Santa Fe. Other cities provide utilities like electrical power or (as in Las Cruces) natural gas service that Santa Fe doesn’t. So no two cities are alike.

What’s good about the chamber’s report is that it has workforce numbers for different cites broken down by category.

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And upon further review of this new report, I have to say that many of us skeptics of Santa Fe governmental efficiency may have to make a grudging admission that the numbers really don’t look so bad, or at least that the jury is still out on this issue.

Santa Fe appears to have taken on a variety of services that other municipalities have managed to shift off the city books, a fact that skews the numbers.

Santa Fe, with a bus service and an airport run by the city, has 179 transportation workers. Flagstaff has just 10, Omaha was credited with only two, and Topeka and Des Moines had absolutely none listed in the chamber study. And, yes, there are airports and buses in Omaha, Topeka and Des Moines – they are run by regional transit authorities.

None of this gets to the bottom line of how many taxpayer dollars are used to subsidize public transportation, regardless of the name of the entity on an employee paycheck.

For community services, a category including libraries, senior or youth and family services, and the housing authority, Santa Fe has 138 employes. Lubbock has only 36, Sarasota has two, and Colorado Springs, Topeka and Asheville, N.C., have none, according to the chamber report.

Libraries elsewhere may be run by library districts or systems separate from city government. Colorado Springs, it turns out, is served by the Pikes Peak Library District, with facilities in the city and the surrounding county. Documents posted online show that the district has its own $28 million budget funded by property taxes and 344 full-time equivalent staff positions. Topeka is served by the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, with an $18 million tax-supported budget.

Topeka is listed with no city employees who work on parks, but it has parks (city and county park operations there were merged under county control in 2012). Des Moines doesn’t list a single person as employed in arts and culture, areas where artsy Santa Fe employs 36.

The chamber report says Colorado Springs, Topeka and Des Moines have no utility employees (for water, sewer, trash pickup, gas or electric service) and that Palm Springs, Calif., dedicates one job and a half to this category; Santa Fe has 249 utility workers.

The point is that taxpayers in other cities are paying for and receiving many of same services that Santa Fe provides, but the job counts for those services are under separate jurisdictions, or maybe private sector companies paid to perform certain tasks, and don’t show up on city payroll lists.

So it appears that, so far, the various surveys – including those by journalists – have not achieved the coveted “apples to apples” comparison.

But there are categories in which, at a quick glance, Santa Fe does look heavy – in particular, top heavy.

In “general government,” including the top offices of the mayor, city attorney, city manager and the city clerk, and functions like auditing, Santa Fe needs 69 people to get by, the same as Omaha uses to serve a population five times bigger. Des Moines and Topeka, also much bigger than Santa Fe, have fewer employees in this category.

And some cities in the survey, including more populous ones, have many fewer finance employees.

So Santa Fe’s policy-makers may need to start any personnel cuts by turning the budget knife on themselves.

Santa Fe’s parks operation also has employee numbers similar to bigger cities, and vastly higher than in Las Cruces, Lubbock and Des Moines.

As this newspaper has asserted before, any Santa Fe resident can put forth anecdotal evidence about inefficiencies in the city work force – like seeing one guy in a truck with the engine running and the AC blowing supervising two guys outside operating weed-whackers. Stories of nepotism and unneeded hires are part of standard street conversation about City Hall.

But in dealing with what’s described as a $15 million budget shortfall, it looks like more work is needed to drill down into the numbers and help decide where positions should be cut and what services Santa Fe can no longer afford – unless we want to raise taxes or decide, transparently this time, that those millions of dollars in water money sitting in reserve can legitimately be spent on general government expenses.

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