The consulting racket
Since the 1980s, municipal budgets across the country have been decimated by state and federal funding cuts. In 2015, Cleveland Heights voters passed their first income tax increase in more than 30 years. During that campaign, at a resident’s request, City Manager Tanisha Briley documented over 100 staff positions eliminated during the previous 15 to 20 years. Now, with tax revenue diminished due to Covid-19, the city faces further cuts and layoffs.
Reduced staffing is just one reason why a municipal executive—a city manager or mayor—may bring in outside contractors. Another justification is the need for specialized skills and knowledge not required for regular operations. Or, it can simply be an ideological predilection.
When should cities hire outside consultants? When do the results justify the expenditure? When are they a waste of tax dollars? And when does outsourcing amount to privatizing essential government functions?
In recent years we have seen instances of all of the above. Responsibility for these decisions and their outcomes rests with Briley and the city councils that have overseen her tenure. Here are a few examples:
In 2016, with no public justification, the entire building department was replaced by outsourcing its functions to the national for-profit corporation, SAFEbuilt Inc.
Last year, under the city’s director of communications and public engagement, the development of a “brand” for Cleveland Heights was farmed out to Columbus consulting firm Align2Market. The disastrous result (“Cleveland Heights: We Choose This”) was never implemented, but nevertheless lightened the city’s coffers by some $80,000. Align2Market also produced a marketing video for the city that was so insipid and off-the-mark residents shouted it down; we still don’t know the cost of that fiasco.
We do not expect the city to employ in-house branding specialists and video producers; but surely there are local professionals who understand and can represent the community better than these hapless out-of-towners.
Also last year, our housing department—which rightly or wrongly was once the envy of other inner-ring suburbs—imploded, and two inspectors were fired for corruption. Briley lost no time outsourcing those two positions to SAFEbuilt. Next, she engaged the Novak Consulting Group (the Cincinnati firm that originally recruited her for Cleveland Heights) to study the problem-plagued department and recommend solutions.
Thanks to a colleague’s public-records request, we have seen a draft of Novak’s in-depth report. We like some of its recommendations, and disagree with others. For example, on the subject of “stakeholder engagement,” it states, “While this effort can be assigned to in-house staff, it is also appropriate for the City to engage a third-party provider to provide additional capacity and an external perspective on the community’s housing approach.” Why are we not surprised that a consulting firm would recommend the use of more consultants?
Municipal governments exist to provide essential services to residents and local businesses—not to have their budgets plundered by consultants who, let’s face it, often get paid to say what the client wants to hear. City employees are public servants; consultants and contractors employed by profit-making companies are not.
One final example: Transitioning to mayor/council government requires a detailed review of the codified ordinances to see if and where wording must be revised. Sometimes it is as simple as changing “city manager” to “mayor.” Although the law department employs a director, four part-time attorneys, a paralegal and two legal secretaries, Briley and council propose to outsource that work. Instead of having our legal staff become more familiar with Cleveland Heights ordinances, they apparently prefer to pay an outside legal firm to start at square one. It beggars belief.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.