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Sweeping in L.A. County -- Force Account or Private?

LA county by Mark Caddick

Program manager Mark Caddick discusses the merits of force account sweeping versus the use of private contractors.

Mark Caddick is Program Manager for Sweeping in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. The county's Road Maintenance Division has recently subdivided its programs and assigned them to different managers for further review. Caddick's mission is to seek out cost-saving opportunities in street sweeping and increases in effectiveness. We interviewed Mark to find out what trends are developing with their municipal sweeping program. You might also be interested in feedback from an L.A. County contractor.

We operate on both sides of the contract process. Those who contract with us to provide their sweeping services include the cities of Palmdale and Industry, plus other departments within the county; including the Departments of Beaches and Harbors, Parks and Recreation, and Health Services.

But we also use contract services ourselves, wherever it's cost effective. According to our records, as of last year, we were doing approximately 110,000 curb miles by force account and 100,000 by contract. That number has shifted this year, however, because our initial finding indicates it is more cost-effective to contract. There's definitely a move toward contracting. In fact, we've recently contracted another two routes.

What's more, we've started performing contract administration for other departments. They'll say, "We need your expertise in creating and administering contracts for street sweeping. We would like you to create this for us, and we will pay you." A new service we're offering to other county departments is creating a contract, advertising it, getting the bids, awarding the contract, and then doing the ongoing administration.

When we advertise for bids, we ask for the sweeping cost per curb mile. Currently the bids turn out to be cheaper than our records indicate we've been paying for labor, overhead and equipment maintenance. If we break even, there's not a great reason to contract because we have much closer contact with our own employees. But, if there's a big difference in cost, it indicates that we should consider contract sweeping.

Unless a comprehensive tracking system is employed, costs may appear artificially low.

Administratively, it's more cumbersome to take complaints from the public and go to the contractor than it is to call our own people. There's also more supervision required, in that we need to perform more inspections. Those costs are now being factored into our analysis.

Still, contract sweeping is proving to be cost-effective, and we use it where appropriate. The public doesn't seem to prefer our forces over a contractor, as long as the product is equal, therefore we're focusing on ensuring a good product.

At first glance, it appears the cost saving for contractors is caused by lower labor costs. However, there are some issues with using contractors. Our employees are very experienced. They've worked for us for a very long time, and that may not be the same for a contractor. In our department, an employee on a route has the title 'Power Sweeper Operator.' That's what the person does, day in and day out. We have some people in our district who are thirty-year employees and have been sweeping for fifteen years. Our workers and their backups know their routes very well, and they've typically been doing it a long, long time. We take great pride in our employees who sweep.

When a contractor puts a new person on a route, the contractor must ensure the person is familiar with the route. It's really up to the contractors to provide close employee support.

We oversee our contractors with spot inspections and also base performance on public satisfaction. Every incoming call immediately gets relayed to the contractor for response. We've set up a process where every complaint that comes in to our office is written up on a complaint form. We fax it to the contractor, and the contractor responds within 24 hours to explain what happened. Then we get back to the resident.

We're trying different ways to make the contractor accountable - using different ways of doing inspections. We have a new contract in which twenty, randomly chosen, spot locations may be inspected according to a standard. And if it's not swept according to standard, then for each location, 5% will be deducted from the contractor's paycheck for that day. (We would not, of course, pick the worst locations!)

If it's cheaper to contract, then it's to the benefit of the public and the department to use our money more effectively elsewhere.

We're just trying out different ways of making it work. If it's cheaper to contract, then it's to the benefit of the public and the department to use our money more effectively elsewhere. We have to consider it, that's our job.

In our division, we've recently been trying to keep very careful track so we can allocate costs better. For example, when we handle complaints in street sweeping, we account for both the inspection and the time our personnel spend answering the complaints. By charging that time against the street sweeping program, we can track the real costs. It used to be that many support functions just ended up going into 'overhead.'

So we're trying to find out, overall, what it really costs to sweep the streets. That includes from administration to contract compliance to inspection to maintenance on the sweepers. We've had good numbers on the maintenance and the actual time that the operator was sweeping. Unless a comprehensive tracking system is employed, costs may appear artificially low.

Our primary criteria for choosing a contractor is low bid. We haven't gotten to the point where we bid against contractors for our own routes, but we do look at what we see as the differential. We definitely know the cost for our routes, per curb mile. We also know the bid price histories from recent contracts that have been coming in.

We also put certain things in our specifications - for example, we now require the mandatory use of specific electronic data capture equipment. [See Onboard Computers] In the past, we used a tachograph system that only showed time of day and whether the broom was up or down. The electronic unit we now require also indicates speed, so that you can find out if the operator was driving 25 miles an hour with the broom down (which is not allowed!). We are still in the learning stage of using the digital, computerized system. With it, once the data is downloaded into a computer spreadsheet program, we can get a variety of reports - time of day, brooms up or down, speed of sweeping - then compare that against the route and see if the limitations in the contract were accomplished. We're working towards a more automated system, so we won't have to spend valuable time interpreting tachograph charts.

Sweepers in LA countyWe have 50 sweepers in the Department of Public Works, but that does not mean we have 50 routes; we use some of those sweepers to support our own activities. We have a 'three-for-two rule' for routes (three sweepers on hand for every two, full-time routes). Also, in each road division with no scheduled sweeping routes, we try to keep one sweeper to support our regular maintenance and construction activities.

We have different types of terrain and surfaces, and sweep only if there's something to put the gutter brooms up against. Even in Los Angeles County, we're not 100% urban - a lot of areas don't have a curb and gutter, so we don't sweep every highway.

In L.A. County, we sweep in the incorporated areas weekly. We also sweep bike trails that are given to us for maintenance under the jurisdiction of the county's Department of Public Works.

Alleys are a special problem. We have many miles of alleys in certain areas and those tend to be much more maintenance-intensive than the streets. We need something much more maneuverable. Some of these alleys are only 12 to 14 feet wide. Just try getting a sweeper down there without running into trash cans, power poles and other obstructions, especially when there is a 'T' or 'dogleg' in the alley!

Only a small portion of our routes are posted. In most areas, posting isn't really necessary - people are very diligent about moving their vehicles, and it doesn't tend to be a problem. However, sometimes somebody has a motorhome and doesn't like parking it in their driveway, so they park it on the street and rarely move it. Instances like that happen. In those situations, we go out and place postcards on the vehicles parked on the block that day. We try to use the low-key method first; courtesy, contact and postcards, before we decide to post.

We're always looking for the kind of project where we can save money. For example, we have little tiny 'islands' that are unincorporated, yet surrounded by incorporated cities. Last year, we started paying the surrounding city in these areas to go in and sweep our 'islands' so we wouldn't have to drive all the way down, with all the deadheading, just to sweep six cul-de-sacs. This turned out to be a fraction of our annual cost. We certainly try to be innovative and more cost-effective wherever we can be.

With all his ideas for cutting costs, from creative contracting and new inspection methods to advanced data collection and strict cost accounting, Mark Caddick is overseeing some very beneficial innovations in the management of Public Works street sweeping for L.A. County - innovations which promise to provide the public with the highest quality services at the lowest cost. Caddick may be reached at 310-869-1176, fax to 310-862-3718, or send email to

This article is reprinted from American Sweeper magazine, Volume 6 Number 1.
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