FNP article: “Nonprofits to Frederick County: Take time privatizing”

Nonprofits to Frederick County: Take time privatizing

Ex-commissioner asks for ‘thoughtful’ tactics

Originally published June 22, 2011

By Meg Tully

News-Post Staff

Leaders from two area nonprofit organizations are calling for the Frederick County Commissioners to slow down on a proposal to privatize more than 500 county government jobs.

In his report to the commissioners, Georgia consultant Oliver Porter last week recommended the board consider outsourcing core government services handled by about 500 of the county’s more than 2,000 employees.

Four public hearings on the proposal are scheduled for next month.

On Tuesday, leaders from Friends of Frederick County and Envision Frederick County, two local nonprofits, met at C. Burr Artz Public Library to discuss the proposal with Frederick County Commissioner David Gray.

At a public hearing last week, the League of Women Voters also called for a slower process.

Friends of Frederick County and Envision Frederick County members suggested Porter’s study should be reviewed by another consultant, or the county should consider establishing a pilot program of outsourcing only one department, instead of proceeding with Porter’s plan of outsourcing all at once.

“It’s too big to rush into without a serious and thoughtful approach,” said Kai Hagen, a former Frederick County commissioner who is now executive director of Envision Frederick County.

He said the 27-page study contains little more detail than a brochure for Porter’s business, PPP Associates, and described the report as a combination puff piece and sales pitch.

David Boston, an intern with Friends of Frederick County and a graduate student at the University of Maryland, said a major flaw in relying on Porter’s expertise is that the consultant has had experience only in situations where an unincorporated area becomes a new, incorporated city — different from what would happen in Frederick County’s existing government.

In a presentation last week, Porter said Frederick County would be the first governmental body of its kind to undergo a large-scale transformation — using private contractors to provide most of the services targeted in the study. Core services include human resources, public works, financial administration, and parks and recreation.

“They’ve already acknowledged Frederick County would be the biggest guinea pig in the history of privatization,” Hagen said.

He pointed to a suggestion by Rick Weldon, a former Frederick County commissioner and state delegate, to ask the University of Maryland’s Institute for Government Services to review the concepts presented in the report. Weldon was writing on an online news forum when he suggested it. Hagen said he thought it was an excellent idea.

Gray said the commissioners are concentrating on short-term results and mentioning a dire financial situation that doesn’t exist. As an example, he pointed to the county finance division’s newest estimate of the deficit for the next budget year — $3.3 million — compared with previous estimates closer to $20 million.

“Long term, I think this board is setting up all kinds of things for a bad result in years to come,” Gray said. “You got to have enough concern to plan long term. And right now we don’t have three people to think long term, we only have two.”

Both Gray and Commissioner Paul Smith have urged commissioners to evaluate the proposal further.

Commissioners Blaine Young, Kirby Delauter and Billy Shreve have expressed interest in the cost-savings potential of privatization, and have said they want to look at redefining the role of government.

Porter’s report estimates privatizing core services could save the county between $84 million and $109 million.

Janice Wiles, executive director of Friends of Frederick County, said that did not include an evaluation of how the county would be financially affected by county workers losing their jobs.

She also raised concerns about turning to private contractors to build infrastructure, citing problems with a privately maintained water system in Braddock in the mid-1990s and with sewer infrastructure at Lake Linganore. The government should be concerned about providing for the health, safety and welfare of residents above all else, she said.

“It’s not about saving money, it’s about providing good services,” Wiles said.

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IF YOU GO

The Frederick County Commissioners have scheduled four public hearings on the Public-Private Partnerships report.

The first two are intended for the county employees, but the public is invited to attend, said Commissioners President Blaine Young. The other two are intended for the public, but employees are invited to attend.

WHAT: Public hearings on the PPP report

WHEN: 7 p.m. July 12 and 9 a.m. July 19 for county employees; 1:30 p.m. July 21 and 7 p.m. July 26 for the public.

WHERE: First-floor hearing room, Winchester Hall, 12 E. Church St.

READ MORE: The report is available at www.frederickcountymd.gov. Printed copies will be placed in Frederick County library branches.