Originally created 09/04/01

Privatize it



The maintenance of public facilities has been a hot topic around Augusta lately. It seems just about everyone has a story about a building, park or road that has fallen into disrepair or is littered. Such accounts make us wonder if it isn't time to privatize some city functions.

There are departments whose tasks appear to overlap. The confusion provides cover for non-performance, making it easy for no one agency to be truly accountable.

If a plant needs to be replaced, it's the Trees and Landscape Department. But if two feet away a brick needs some mortar or a railing needs paint, somebody call Facilities Maintenance or maybe Public Works. Small wonder departments spend a lot of time passing the buck.

But if the city contracted out maintenance of Riverwalk Augusta, for instance, officials could have the job bid on and then oversee the execution of the contract. The same could apply to other departments.

Recently, the city privatized garbage delivery and, after working out a few kinks in the system, the operations are starting to smooth out.

Other city functions now contracted out include the job of the internal auditor and the administration of the fringe benefits program. Because of past performance disasters, the Messerly Sewage Treatment Plant had to be privatized, and a real turnaround is being made there. The maintenance of the city bus fleet is also done on contract.

But why stop there? Why not privatize all of public transit? Nationally based companies that specialize in running bus operations know how to leverage their resources.

Some other services that could be contracted out include library operations, payroll and data services.

What's more, a number of cities have had success with what is being called "managed competition," where a set of contract parameters are established and city agencies are given an opportunity to bid on the work against private bidders. While such arrangements require an objective third party to evaluate a city department's real costs (it's easy to hide true costs in other departments), we see no reason why the city should not look into such an option.

Of course, privatizing implies there will be appropriate cuts to the municipal payroll. That's just one reason why the city administrator should push the Augusta Commission to authorize a cost/benefit study on privatization.

Other communities' experience suggests savings of at least 10 percent can be realized. That's worth fighting for.