9/1/07

Politicians consider service improvements

It's called privatization, or sometimes managed competition. Whatever it's called, it's controversial. Louisville Metro Council members Tina Ward-Pugh and Ken Fleming want to study the cost of government services - from filling potholes to picking up garbage. Some fear it would be a first step toward privatization, taking jobs from government workers and giving them to private companies.

Ward-Pugh and Fleming - a Democrat and Republican, respectively - deny that's their motive. They introduced the idea more than six months ago, and it has sat idle since. But now they will explain what they want to do with the information at a Metro Council Budget Committee meeting next Wednesday.

A second meeting, on Sept. 19, will be set aside to hear from union members, workers and the public.

Public service agencies, such as police, fire and the Emergency Medical Service, would be exempt from the study.

"There hasn't been a systematic approach to putting a dollar value to every city service," said Ward-Pugh, who represents the 9th District. "Other communities have done that."

Both Ward-Pugh and Fleming say they believe the study will find that city workers do a good, economical job. They say they're not trying to use the study to build a case for outsourcing government jobs. Other cities and states have gone through a similar process.

But Fleming, from the 7th District, does say that managed competition would force government workers to come up with even more economical ways of performing their tasks.

And he said the study would provide more "transparency" in government because taxpayers will know how much they're paying for the services.

"Before you do anything, you've got to understand the costs," Fleming said. "This is proactive. There's a bunch of need in this community. If we could realize some savings, all boats would rise with the incoming tide."

The cost of the city's study can range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to several million, depending on how many departments are involved.

Chad Carlton, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Abramson, said there's more to providing government services than a simple review of cost.

"Cheaper isn't always better," Carlton said. "We look at it as providing the best service at a reasonable cost. Looking at cost savings alone is a more narrow approach than we've taken so far. When we looked at our jails, it was not just cost. We evaluated things like best practices and safety."

For an idea of how controversial privatization is, consider a message that was posted on the AFSCME union Web page earlier this year when the plan was first announced. AFSCME, which stands for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, represents about 900 metro employees.

"We need to have members to sign up to speak out against this legislation. We need to forward e-mails, faxes and phone calls to the members of the Budget Committee, as well as our individual council members, and urge them to reject this Union Busting Legislation."

After listing all 26 council members' telephone numbers, it said: "LET'S DO THIS!!!!!!!"

Gino Carbenia, administrator of AFSCME Local 2629, said he doesn't buy the idea that Ward-Pugh and Fleming just want a look-see.

"Citizens need to have some control over the services they pay for,'' Carbenia said. "When they are in the hands of private companies, it's about dollars and cents and not service. Citizens pay more and get less under privatization. It's just that simple."

Denny Norris, a spokesman for Teamsters Local 783, which represents nearly 1,000 metro employees, called the study "smoke and mirrors."

"Companies will low-ball the bid then jack their prices up," Norris said. "The city loses all control with this."

Ruffin Hall, finance director for Charlotte, N.C., said managed competition has saved the city there "millions and millions" since the 1990s. But, he said, it's not as easy as it sounds.

In Charlotte, departments enter bids against private industry. Hall said that the city wins "most of the time," and that the process has forced departments to be more efficient to win those bids.

"We've become sharper, quicker and faster," Hall said. "Lots of cities try to mimic this, but you've got to make a strong commitment to the program. Being successful in this is not simple."

The commitment begins with a strong audit division that will monitor how the private companies perform in fulfilling the contract in areas such as responding to citizen complaints. One advantage Charlotte has over Louisville: North Carolina is one of two states in the nation that prohibit public-sector labor unions.

"That's a stumbling block," Hall said. "The unions tend to go nuts-o."

Ward-Pugh and Fleming acknowledge that they should have done a better job of laying some political groundwork -- by talking to other council members, for example -- before introducing their ordinance.

They said opposition surfaced immediately among unions.

"Right now we don't have the votes" to pass the ordinance, Ward-Pugh said.

But they said they hope the Abramson administration will work with them so they can identify specific areas where there might be savings.

Council President Rick Blackwell, D-12th District, said he's worried about the cost of such a study.

"You might get a great deal at first, but once you've dismantled the city system (for providing a service) then you're pretty exposed," Blackwell said.

Ward-Pugh conceded there's more to evaluating city services than how much they cost.

"Even if we came up with a way to save 50 cents on a dollar, the fact is the people making that dollar are real and we can't talk about them in an abstract way," she said. "But that doesn't relieve us from the responsibility of finding out (these) answers."

(courier-journal.com)

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