Laid-Off City Worker Recalls Being Ordered to Waste Public Money

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San Francisco's model for city government, apparently
After SF Weekly last month ran a cover feature on the myriad shortcomings of San Francisco's city government, we received a number of supportive letters from city employees. Many of them were evocative and scintillating and retold instances of Kafkaesque situations we'd touched on in our article. But the one that stood out the most was a letter from "Jean," a thrice laid-off former secretary at a large city department. (We're obscuring Jean's identity because he or she is still working for the city, in a different department, and could well be laid off again by the time you read this).

Jean's story: After she'd been handed her pink slip, managers tasked her and other departing workers with going on a spending spree to exhaust the department's budget by the end of the fiscal year last June. Even with the city facing record deficits, Jean's department -- and, almost certainly, many others -- were compulsively spending rather than giving back a cent, amassing useless items at top dollar and asking folks cut loose in the name of fiscal shortfalls to undertake this buy-a-thon.

"I myself spent $18,000," said Jean, who figures he and his colleagues blew through some $50,000 in a matter of days purchasing needless and luxurious items on the city's dime. In one instance, Jean told a manager that he'd located a shredder that cost only $1,000 when the manager had highlighted one that cost twice that. Jean was dumbfounded when his manager upbraided him for not spending enough money, and wasting time by shopping for bargains. That this was public money he was spending mattered little to his bosses -- nor did the fact that even a $1,000 bargain of a shredder was useless.

"We had a shredder 50 feet from my desk. Twenty-five feet from that was a smaller shredder," recalls Jean. "And we had a service that would come and pick up our paper. So it just didn't make any sense."   

But wait -- Jean didn't tell us about the chairs yet. "I've got to tell you about the chairs," she said, with a trace of pain in her voice. Since Jean didn't blow enough money buying the more expensive redundant shredder, her manager asked her to start buying chairs for the conference room at several hundred dollars a pop.

Unfortunately, however, there wasn't room for those chairs in the conference room, as the beautiful new table the department ordered was actually too big for the room. The chairs were stacked against the wall. A/V tables, a questionable investment to start with, now didn't fit in the conference room at all, and were stacked in some closet. The DVD/VCR Jean was made to buy didn't hook up properly in the conference room and, as far as he knows, is still moldering in a box in a closet. Why not? Four DVD players he bought five years ago in a similar spending spree to beat a year-end budget are also still in a closet.

According to Jean, while San Francisco departments ostensibly sought ways to trim their budgets during last year's deficit nightmare, members of his department walked down to the furniture store, had themselves "tailor-fitted" for ergonomic chairs, and plunked down as much as $1,000 in public money per seat. That everyone in the office already had ergonomic chairs was no barrier.

When Jean brought up the ridiculousness of this situation, his managers told him he was naive, with one charming fellow informing him he "wasn't educated enough" to understand what was going on (Jean has a college degree). "How much education do you need to know that you're throwing away money?" pondered Jean.

"It drove me nuts. And it happened every year. Nobody ever gives money back, because then the thinking is that your budget will be smaller next year," said Jean. "We lost some really good people. And, man, did we buy some real junk." 

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