Cities rethink privatization efforts

Leading with the example of Chicago’s 75 year parking meter lease, here is a look at how some communities are rethinking privatization of local services and amenities:

In states and cities across the country, lawmakers are expressing new skepticism about privatization, imposing new conditions on government contracting, and demanding more oversight. Laws to rein in contractors have been introduced in 18 states this year, and three—Maryland, Oregon, and Nebraska—have passed legislation, according to In the Public Interest, a group that advocates what it calls “responsible contracting.”

“We’re not against contracting, but it needs to be done right,” said the group’s executive director, a former AFL-CIO official named Donald Cohen. “It needs to be accountable, transparent, and held to high standards for quality of work and quality of service.” Cohen’s organization, a national clearinghouse exclusively devoted to privatization issues, is the first advocacy group of its kind…

Donahue, who has studied the issue since 1988, sees privatization as inherently neither good nor bad. Academic studies paint a mixed picture, he said. The private sector can deliver efficiencies when the task being sought is well defined, easy to measure, and subject to competition—mowing public parks, perhaps, or collecting trash.

But when the goals are fuzzier or competition is lacking, the picture gets cloudier. Is the purpose of municipal parking meters to maximize revenue, or is it to provide a low-cost amenity to citizens and the businesses they patronize? How do you value the various objectives of a prison system—justice, rehabilitation, social order—when the financial incentive is to lock more people up? In many cases, Donahue said, privatization and contracting save governments money not through increased efficiency but by undercutting public-sector wages and pensions or, as in the case of the parking meters, by effectively robbing the future to pay for the needs of the present. (By mid-2011, the city had spent all but $125 million of the $1.2 billion parking-meter payment.)

Three things seem fairly clear (to me):

1. One big mistake is privatization contracts that are way too long. Seventy-five years is a long time deal, particularly given how conditions can change. If the deal goes sour quickly or the public turns on it, this is a long time to wait for the contract to expire.

2. Not having enough time to read through contracts and then debate the particulars is a problem. Deals shouldn’t be entered into quickly, particularly when the public interest is at stake.

3. A lot of the public discussion of privatization seems more ideological rather than looking at research (some referenced in this article). Government vs. the private sector is a pretty large debate to have and there may be areas where each could perform better or might better protect the interests of residents.

Even if skepticism about privatization is increasing, this issue will continue to be important as numerous cities and communities seek to squeeze out more revenue from stagnant or limited resources.

Turning half the streetlights out in Detroit

The fate of Detroit has been in the news in recent years and here is another symbol of the city’s troubles: it is considering taking out a number of its streetlights.

Detroit, whose 139 square miles contain 60 percent fewer residents than in 1950, will try to nudge them into a smaller living space by eliminating almost half its streetlights.

As it is, 40 percent of the 88,000 streetlights are broken and the city, whose finances are to be overseen by an appointed board, can’t afford to fix them. Mayor Dave Bing’s plan would create an authority to borrow $160 million to upgrade and reduce the number of streetlights to 46,000. Maintenance would be contracted out, saving the city $10 million a year.

Other U.S. cities have gone partially dark to save money, among them Colorado Springs; Santa Rosa, California; and Rockford, Illinois. Detroit’s plan goes further: It would leave sparsely populated swaths unlit in a community of 713,000 that covers more area than Boston, Buffalo and San Francisco combined. Vacant property and parks account for 37 square miles (96 square kilometers), according to city planners…

Delivering services to a thinly spread population is expensive. Some 20 neighborhoods, each a square mile or more, are only 10 to 15 percent occupied, said John Mogk, a law professor at Wayne State University who specializes in urban law and policy. He said the city can’t force residents to move, and it’s almost impossible under Michigan law for the city to seize properties for development.

This sounds similar to the story from late last year where Detroit suburb Highland Park also decided to reduce its number of streetlights to save money.

Here is my question: does the story stop with streetlights or is the turning off of streetlights just the first step in much bigger efforts to contract Detroit? If you were a politician, perhaps dealing first with streetlights eases people into larger steps of consolidating and/or reducing services. Turning off streetlights is not a small thing; people tend to equate them with safety. Once streetlights are reduced, what comes next?

This story reminds me of an argument in Barrington Hills in late 2010 about reducing the number of lights to preserve the community’s rural, wealthy character. So wealthier, higher-class areas want fewer lights while cities and denser areas see street lights as a basic building block of city services?

 

More contracted municipal work

The Wall Street Journal reports on more municipalities contracting out city services.

Cities say they have little choice. Municipalities across the U.S. will face a projected shortfall of $56 to $86 billion between 2010 and 2012, according to a report from the National League of Cities.

The primary focus of the story is California communities.

For many of the services mentioned in the article, such as tree-trimming, residents likely won’t notice much difference.