Public workers keep us safe from storms

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

This newspaper and media outlets across Southern California have been focusing coverage on El Niño – the impact of the recent storms on our homeless population, on drought conditions and on communities at risk of flooding.

Yet for months, the public workers charged with keeping our communities safe and healthy have been planning for El Niño and taking preventative measures to help protect our communities in the face of the uncertain consequences of inclement weather.

In Huntington and Newport Beach, workers built sand berms to stave off flooding. County health officials worked months on a host of preparations, such as 1.1 miles of inflatable dams, 5,500 catch-basin cleanouts, tens of thousands of sand bags and hundreds of rice and hay bales. Months before the first storm hit, workers also helped relocate or otherwise protect homeless living along the county’s riverbeds.

Across the county, your tax dollars are paying to protect our communities from the worst, securing property and protecting lives. For the public workers on the front lines, El Niño has simply been one more call to action, another clear example of how those who provide public services serve the community.

There has been much discussion on these editorial pages over the years about the need to “run government like a business.”

In some ways, adapting business principles in the public sector makes sense. County workers, for example, have long been advocates for adapting private-sector efficiency programs to county operations, and we are excited and proud that we will be working collaboratively with county leaders over the next several years to identify ways to streamline government services and reduce waste.

Still, when lives and property are at risk, when the health and safety of our community is at stake, it is equally important to remember that government is not a business. Its objective, unlike businesses, is not to turn a profit. And promoting the notion government should be profit-motivated could, and does, have dire consequences.

As Americans, we live together with a social pact, pooling our resources to provide benefits that not only directly benefit us, but make our collective lives better. For example, no one citizen could pave our highways, ensure our drinking water and septic drainage systems function properly, or provide necessary security.

Acting together, we take care of vulnerable children and the elderly, and we provide basic emergency care for our neighbors in need. This reflects our values as a society and adds immense value to our communities.

Imagine if, during this rainy season, the county didn’t clear the riverbeds or help our homeless population find shelter because those at risk don’t have the ability to pay for that service.

Imagine if firefighters raised their prices astronomically for victims of flooding or mudslides during El Niño conditions – following the law of supply and demand – and prioritized how they responded to emergencies based on which home or business would pay a premium for the service rather than which presented the greatest risk?

There have been attempts to inject a profit-motivated model to the delivery of public services, yet those efforts have largely failed, and you only have to access Google to find the horror stories reflecting the loss of life, property and other resources that have ensued.

So as the winter storms rage on, and the political season heats up with rhetoric about small government and business principles, we should also remember that the valuable public services provided by our federal, state and local government are here for us when we need them – and that’s the appropriate way to measure their value to us.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: January 8, 2016