MAYWOOD, Calif. » Not once, not twice, but three times, Andrew Quezada says, he was stopped in the past two weeks and questioned by authorities here.
Quezada, a high school student who does volunteer work for the city, pronounced himself delighted.
"I’m walking along at night carrying an overstuffed bag," he said, describing two of the incidents. "I look suspicious. This shows the sheriff’s department is doing its job."
Chalk up another Maywood resident who approves of this city’s unusual experience in municipal governing. City officials last month fired all of Maywood’s employees and outsourced their jobs.
While many communities are fearfully contemplating extensive cuts, Maywood says it is the first city in the nation in the current downturn to take an ax to everyone.
The school crossing guards were let go. Parking enforcement was contracted out, City Hall workers dismissed, street maintenance workers made redundant. The public safety duties of the police department were handed over to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
At first, people in this poor, long-troubled and heavily Hispanic city southeast of Los Angeles braced for anarchy.
Senior citizens were afraid they would be assaulted as they walked down the street. Parents worried the parks would be shut and their children would have nowhere to safely play.Landlords said their tenants had begun suggesting that without city-run services they would no longer feel obliged to pay rent.
The apocalypse never arrived. In fact, it seems this city was so bad at being a city that outsourcing – so far, at least – is being viewed as an act of municipal genius.
"We don’t want to be the model for other cities to lay off their employees," said Magdalena Prado, a spokeswoman for the city who works on contract. "But our residents have been somewhat pleased."
That includes Mayor Ana Rosa Rizo, who was gratified to see her husband get a parking ticket July 1, hours after the police department had been disbanded. The ticket was issued by enforcement clerks for the neighboring city of Bell, which is being paid about $50,000 a month by Maywood to perform various services.
The reaction is all the more remarkable because this is not a feel-good city. City Council hearings run hot, council members face repeated recall efforts and city officials fight in public.
"You single-handedly destroyed the city," the city treasurer told the City Council at its most recent meeting.
Four years ago, in what was probably the high-water mark of acrimony in Maywood, a deputy city clerk was arrested and accused of soliciting a hit man to kill a city councilman. The deputy clerk, Hector Duarte, was concerned that his salary might be reduced or his job eliminated during a previous round of bad fiscal times; he was sentenced to a year in jail and six months of anger management counseling.
This time, the councilman, Felipe Aguirre, has received no threats and has seen remarkably little anger.
"This is a very bad economy," said Aguirre, who like the mayor and fellow council members receives a stipend from the city of $347 every two weeks. Even if city employees lose their benefits, he said, "very good workers are still going to hang around."
Jose B. Garcia, an assistant city planner, will now be working on contract.
"I still have a job," he said. "In that sense, I can’t complain too much."
Maywood, which covers slightly more than one square mile, is one of the most densely populated cities in the country. The official population of 30,000 is believed to considerably understate the actual total of about 50,000.
It has some of the ills that plague other cities. Property taxes, a primary source of revenue, have declined to $900,000 from $1.2 million in 2007. Sales taxes have also dropped. But Maywood’s biggest problem by far has been its police department.
A report by the state attorney general last year concluded the culture of the department "is one permeated with sexual innuendo, harassment, vulgarity, discourtesy to members of the public as well as among officers, and a lack of cultural, racial and ethnic sensitivity and respect."
There are $19 million in claims pending against the police, which made it effectively impossible for the city to get insurance for any of its employees. If Maywood did not dismiss the municipal work force, officials said, bankruptcy would have been the only option. The total number of laid-off employees, including those in the police department, was about 60, city officials said.
"Just like the driver who has three and then four and then five accidents, things were starting to look ugly," said Angela Spaccia, the acting city manager who is on loan from the city of Bell.
The budget for the police department last year was nearly $8 million, more than half of Maywood’s revenues. The contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department will cost about half of that. Insurance premiums for the city have fallen to $200,000 from $1 million.
The deputies have already engendered good will, Aguirre said, by cracking down on a local hotel that was a haven for prostitution.
And others said they have seen an increased police presence in the last few weeks.
"The deputies are there right away," said Maria Mendez, who has lived in Maywood for most of her 73 years. "Before you used to wait and wait for the police."
One reason for the general enthusiasm might lie in the fact that many of the non-police workers have been rehired on contract, so in some cases the faces encountered by the public remain the same. In other words, no one has noticed much going wrong because there was not much to notice in the first place.
The five crossing guards, for instance, are doing the same work but are paid by a security company.
And it is possible the bad news is just slow in arriving. Maywood has dabbled in contracting before, and it has run awry in some instances. Skeptics cited the example of two handball courts in a Maywood park. City officials said it cost an outsized sum – hundreds of thousands of dollars – for a contractor to build three concrete walls.
A few people, extrapolating from personal experience, are convinced that the city is still on a downward path.
Jerald Bennett was on his way to the $2 seniors’ lunch at the Maywood recreational center when another car made an illegal turn and almost rammed him.
"It seems like that sort of thing is happening more and more," he said. "They’re not patrolling the streets."
For others, however, the celebration here is practically palpable. Freed from its employees, Maywood has nowhere to go but up, they say.
"Remember the Soviet Union?" said Hector Alvarado, who heads a civic advocacy group. "They had a lot of bureaucracy, and they lost. Maywood was like that. Now people know if they don’t work, they will be laid off. Much better this way."