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The Tentacle


July 11, 2011

Privatization: A Failure of Management?

Steven R. Berryman

Frederick County is falling all over itself with responses from all concerned in the matter of the potential privatization of services in our local government. A misnomer known as “Public-Private Partnership” – really a line from a sales brochure that indicates a position on this choice – may cost 528 local jobs initially.

 

Yes, under some plans yet unformulated, some of these displaced county employees could be rehired by a private employer, who is awarded a contract to perform the services, perhaps at lower wage and benefits; thus yielding a theoretical profit that could be shared between a taxpayer cost reduction – to the Frederick County Board of County Commissioners position – or to the contractor’s bottom-line itself.

 

But at what cost and why?

 

The cost to the workers and county divisions under the knife is a sickening sense of uncertainty toward their future until this is resolved, and until there is clarity on the future of public-private partnerships in Frederick County. A hidden cost will be several thousand workers now under examination who will certainly suffer from a knowing sense of expendability.

 

The “why” is easy and noble; Blaine Young is leading the commissioners to find savings in the millions, just as he promised during his successful campaign last year.

 

However…

 

Compounding this fiscal and managerial analysis is a problem of general perception by the “public” itself – which is supposed to be the net beneficiary of said plans – that a deal is already struck, even without proof-of-concept studies that hold up under scrutiny.

 

For details extracted from the initial $25,000 study endorsing privatization see the three most recent columns by attorney/activist Barry Kissin in the Frederick News-Post. His examples of internal-conflicts and of the shoddy construction of a justification within the initial brief – or white paper – were manifest and had the appearance of cutting and pasting a previously used sales brochure.

 

All of this as proposed by an out-of-state company which is also seeking to be a paid consultant on its own deal!

 

And why hold a public forum for feedback from the impacted government workers before raw data demonstrating value in a new program is present and evaluated, and when the proposed methods of savings – in and of themselves – do not have a track record in established communities the size of Frederick County?

 

The perception of a rush to garner approval for a privatization plan to save money for the county will have a political toll for all of the county commissioners as a group, and this will come due should some plan be posted for a final thumbs' up.

 

As Frederick News-Post columnist Don Kornreich correctly points up in his Sunday column yesterday, the very concept of privatization of services conflicts with concocting a new charter form of government when attempted concurrently. At the very minimum, there is now a pervasive sense of having too much up in the air at the same time, with the potential for unforeseen consequences very high.

 

Current lack of specificity during a time when the public-private partnership concept is being pushed – to one degree or another – can only remind us of having to pass “ObamaCare” in order “to see what was in it.” If that’s not enough of a local memory that would trigger a cautious attitude, then simply recall the City of Frederick’s early retirement/buyout plan sold under a similar cause of saving money long-term, but with dubious outcome.

 

Also, with the concept of privatization of government services taken to a logical extreme, why not also consider privatization of police and sheriff departments to save money? Surely there is duplication of training, dispatchers, overlapping territory and duty, etc… The answer is that now our officers and deputies are necessarily “closer to the people” and to the job at hand, affording a massive advantage in how they conduct their jobs for us…immensely to our advantage and worth the premium.

 

Other services afford similar advantage to us that spreadsheets will not demonstrate fairly. To my Tea Party and fiscal conservative friends, I remind them that cash savings is not the only answer when peace of mind is not a quantifiable benefit.

 

Three last observations:

 

How has wholesale privatization of the Defense Department’s and the Pentagon’s inner workings – handing out authority to defense contractors with self audit – worked out financially in the long term? We are now under submission of their budget with massive overruns and we all know the story of the $425 hammer.

 

Plus:

 

Strategically, it was suggested on the Michael Kurtianyk hosted Frederick’s Forum Show last Saturday that this issue could easily become a Republican/Democratic political football. I hope not, as the interests of people in both camps are clearly so intermingled.

 

And:

 

It seems to me that the implied underlying cause of this search for cost savings under a public private partnership scenario in public services is an assumption that our current service worker productivity is bad. How else wring out new savings under any other plan? The image of a Department of Public Works work crew with two watching one working is conjured up.

 

Are we really saying that we need better internal management of our public services in order to save taxpayers money? Then the Board of County Commissioners must first evaluate itself as “the buck stops there.”

 

srbmgr@gmail.com

 



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