Augusta looks for more services to privatize

Augusta has long looked outside government to provide city services, from the contractors and subcontractors who collect residents’ trash to the outside legal counsel who exclusively advised the mayor and commission until 2007.

Most recently, the city relinquished two popular Augusta services, Augusta Public Transit and Augusta Municipal Golf Course, to the private sector.

If some commissioners have their way, the list of services farmed out to private companies would grow.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham, for instance, included in a recent list of 15 cost-saving measures an examination of the city print shop, housekeeping and landscaping for potential outsourcing. Brigham also called for a re-examination of services that might be cheaper if done in-house.

The reorganization plan approved by commissioners in March set the stage for privatizing a number of maintenance-related functions when it dissolved the public services department and divided its duties among the engineering, environmental services and recreation departments.

“What we did was look at what we were doing, to try to figure out a better way to do it,” City Admin­istrator Fred Russell said of the plan he largely wrote.

With personnel that provide those services now under different management, department directors can “come back with suggestions to make them better,” he said.

Leading the pack seems to be Environmental Services Director Mark Johnson, who put landscape maintenance at the landfill out for bids from private firms earlier this year.

His department was assigned the task of cutting and clearing vacant lots – a responsibility that until May was under Licensing and Inspections but had a backlog of work orders “exceeding 200,” according to bid documents. Johnson and the city procurement office quickly advertised the job for bids from private firms.

In Russell’s Aug. 19 report on savings from the reorganization plan, outsourcing street sweeping, now assigned to Johnson, is included with vacant lot clearing among “potential efficiencies” to be realized.

In engineering, which has been reassigned right of way maintenance, bids from private firms are due for tree removal and pruning this month.

Russell acknowledged the prospect of losing longtime city jobs because of outsourcing “scares people to death” and said that’s part of the reason the plan was developed privately by select personnel.

 

FOR RECREATION, Parks and Facil­ities Director Tom Beck, commission turmoil over Russell’s raises for management involved in the reorganization might have put plans to privatize “in a holding pattern.” But among new and existing duties assigned to Beck, several are on the list for potential outsourcing.

With a lease in the works for the golf course and Augusta Box­ing Club now out from under city support, up next are custodial services, landscaping and mowing, the city’s skilled labor shop and even youth sports.

The labor shop handles work orders for plumbing, electrical and carpentry repairs in most city buildings, and Augusta employs nine full-time staffers in its youth sports program, Beck said.

“We would turn over all our youth sports over to private associations,” he said. “What the city recreation department turns out being is mainly a facilitator.”

It’s been done in many cities and generally requires a three-year transition, Beck said.

 

UTILITIES DIRECTOR Tom Wied­meier, who is experienced in gauging when and when not to outsource a function, said it largely depends on the size of the task, how often it is needed and whether the city has the equipment and staff to get it done efficiently.

Sometimes, as in the case of Sandy Springs, Ga., the choice becomes a philosophical one, Wied­meier said. The ritzy Atlanta suburb, incorporated in 2005, contracted with Colorado-based CH2M Hill to provide all city services except for police and fire protection. This year, the city of 94,000 cut ties with CH2M Hill and divided its contracted services among several different private firms.

The firms “have to make a profit, whereas a government doesn’t,” Wiedmeier said.

Sandy Springs, which before incorporating long complained of being left out of Fulton County’s provision of tax-funded services, employs fewer than 400 people, 125 of them sworn police officers. Augusta-Richmond County has a workforce of more than 2,700.

Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles, a staunch advocate of privatization, says nearly all Augusta government functions should be
examined for possible outsourcing.

“Private industry is profit-motivated, but (it) is also efficient and effective, while government is not," Bowles said, offering the example of Augusta Public Transit. “When you look at bus drivers in the past, with the way they treated riders, when you privatized (transit) they don't put up with that type of behavior.”

Bowles would exclude public safety functions and a few other areas from private operation.

“That’s what government was founded on, public safety, not these other things,” said Bowles, who works as a contractor providing goods to the federal government. “Things that you want more direct control over, or influence on as an elected body, it’s better to keep it in house.”

 

COMMISSIONER BILL Lockett, a career military and government employee, opposes nearly all attempts to privatize Augusta govern­ment functions, including the outsourcing of Augusta Public Transit.

“It’s the redistribution of money,” he said. “Some of the money that workers would be receiving goes to top management, often­times the service is not improved, and in many instances you really don’t realize any significant cost savings.”

The 44 raises awarded by Russell that prompted Lockett and Commissioner Al Mason’s call to fire him went to reorganized department manage­ment where functions are lined up to be privatized.

Lockett said workers such as those in transit lost their city benefits and retirement plan in exchange for reduced or no benefits under private management, and that ultimately a government is obligated to provide certain services to residents without any direct expected return.

“This is why you draw lots of industry to a city, because the city is taken care of,” he said.

PRIVATIZING ISN’T NEW IN AUGUSTA

The city’s history of privatizing functions predates its consolidation with Richmond County, and there’s already a private side to many city departments, from the use of consultants such as Butch Gallop and Associates to liaison between city sales tax funds and private construction firms, to residents’ ability to “hire” off-duty deputies for private security.

Mobility Transit took over management of Augusta Public Transit on Aug. 1, with a promise to improve the bus system and run it for $400,000 less than the $5 million the city has been spending annually.

The Patch in Augusta LLC, a private firm with Aberdeen, Scotland, and Savannah principals, was approved July 19 to lease and operate Augusta Municipal Golf Course, instantly eliminating about $150,000 in annual liability once its lease is finalized.

Slightly less controversial was the 2008 hire of private firm Global Spectrum to manage Bell Auditorium and James Brown Arena. It took over for an Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority prone to infighting and whose potential re-hire spurred a physical confrontation between board member William Fennoy and activist Woody Merry.

Global Spectrum has narrowed the facilities’ annual operating losses, with help from a temporary infusion of new hotel-motel taxes tied to the authority’s issue of bonds to build a new convention center.

For nearly 13 years, private firm Sentinel Offender Services has monitored state court probationers, withstanding several legal challenges as it charges probationers a fee to monitor them and collect millions annually in revenue from fines.

– Susan McCord, staff writer

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