By SARA FITZGERALD
March 14, 2012
Leaders from different levels of government shared their perspectives on the issues surrounding the privatization of government services at a “Lunch and Learn” forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Falls Church on Tuesday. The forum was part of an ongoing nationwide study by the League of Women Voters of the United States; the Falls Church League will meet later this month to develop its position on questions raised by the national study, including identifying strategies to promote transparency and accountability when private companies take over government services.
Kathy Allan, superintendent of public works for the City of Falls Church, described the five-year process through which the city government decided to turn its solid waste disposal over to a private contractor. Allan noted that she was told that one reason the city had not previously outsourced many of its services was because “Falls Church residents loved their services, loved their twice-a-week pick-up, and loved knowing the faces” of their garbage collectors. But the city was willing to consider making a change because its equipment was aging, the budget was growing tighter and the employees involved could be redeployed to fill existing vacancies in other departments.
Allan said that the city government worked closely with the community in considering the move. She also stressed the importance of having “a fallback plan” if the transition does not work. “For a small jurisdiction, it is extremely important to make sure you do it right.”
Allan said that the change resulted in $150,000 worth of annual savings and a better level of customer service by consolidating pick-ups on one day of the week, and requiring the winning vendor to purchase trash carts for the city. The city decided to use its own employees to manage customer service calls to help ensure quality control.
Allan noted that the city had engaged the help of outside experts throughout the review process before signing a seven-year contract that was renewable each year. Ongoing evaluation procedures and legitimate cost revisions are included in the contract.
Allan observed that although the city has since sold its trash collection equipment, there are several potential vendors the city could turn to if its current contractor does not perform. Trash collection, she pointed out, is “not a specialized service. We have ‘special customers,’ but the services that are provided are no different from the services other jurisdictions receive.
Dr. Toni Jones, superintendent of the Falls Church City Schools, began her remarks by saying flatly that there were no moves afoot to “privatize” the Falls Church schools, as has been done in some districts around the country, particularly for struggling schools.
“The issue that is more difficult for us,” she explained, “is that you lose control over whether those [non-school employees] are a good fit for 5-year-olds and 10-year-olds.” Jones said that the school district augments its technology staff at particularly busy times of the year through a contract it shares with the city for outside technology support. Jones said it also makes sense to hire an outside contractor to do a job like painting the ceiling of a gymnasium, for which the school district would have neither the necessary equipment or expertise.
Jones noted that the school district has also relied on outside experts to help it manage the construction project at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.
Democratic Delegate Jim Scott approached the topic by talking about what he viewed as the challenges of funding transportation and education improvements in the state of Virginia today. He observed that there was little support around the state—“except perhaps among the citizens of Falls Church”—to pay more in taxes to receive more government services. “We’re going to see a lot more privatization because we’re losing the resources we had for government services. . . . It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a question of whether it’s an appropriate thing.” Asked about the status of proposals to privatize state liquor stores, Scott replied that he thought that idea was “pretty much dormant” now.
Finally, Eva Griffeth, an expert on federal acquisition policy, provided an overview of the complicated regulations that the U.S. government has in place to regulate its contracting processes. Despite all that, she said, “administering the contract is still important. If you don’t have a way of stopping the work if it’s not done right, you’re in trouble.”
Several audience members raised questions about proposals to sell the city’s water system to a private contractor. City Manager Wyatt Shields, who was in the audience, explained that the city has not yet made a decision to sell the system, but it has solicited and received several responses to a Request for Information. He noted that the sale of the system would require the approval of city voters. If the City Council decides to move forward, he said, “what is in the Council’s mind” would be to put the question on the November ballot. As a matter of law, a decision to proceed would have to be made by late July to provide the requisite time to get the question on the ballot.
For more information on the League of Women Voters of Falls Church, go to http://www.lwvfallschurch.org/. For more resources on the issue of privatization, see the “E-bulletins” section of the Website.