The Barrow County Board of Commissioners recently agreed to spend $20,000 to have a consultant prepare a RFQ for the privatization of some county services. That’s on top of another effort last year when the same consultant recommended the county pursue privatization of some county services.
If the BOC really wants to save taxpayer funds, here’s a suggestion: Stop pissing money away on hiring consultants who have a self-serving agenda.
Consultant Oliver Porter is not an independent voice looking at doing what’s financially best for Barrow County. He’s an ideologue whose mission in life is to promote and encourage government privatization even if such a move isn’t good for the taxpayers. That’s how he makes money.
So of course he’s going to recommend Barrow County outsource and privatize services and he’s going to paint a glowing picture of just how great it would be.
It’s time, however, to take a breath and ask tough questions. Is privatizing some county departments really in the best interest of taxpayers?
On the surface, it might seem so. “Privatization” has become a popular buzzword in conservative circles where there is a large amount of disdain for entrenched government bureaucrats. From city hall to Washington D.C., government offices are filled with overpaid drones who often don’t seem to give a damn about the public they are supposed to serve.
There are three sectors of people in the U.S. today — the government sector in which too many bureaucrats are getting gold-plated salaries and benefits; the welfare sector who get benefits through a slew of government handout programs; and the private sector which does the work and pays the taxes to support the first two.
The backlash of this dynamic has primed many people to support any move that would “privatize” government. It sounds good. “Private” sounds more efficient and cheaper than “government.”
In addition, the Barrow County government has done little in recent years that would give the public confidence that it is being run by professionals. Think about its animal control. Just how many times will the BOC screw up hiring people in that department?
And there have been many reports over the years that too many unqualified people have been hired in the county government, people hired not based on their skills, but rather on who their relatives or friends are. There’s no way to prove that, but it’s a common view that the Barrow County government is being run more on nepotism than competence.
With all those negatives, it might seem natural for the BOC to turn to privatization as an answer to some of the county’s management problems.
But maybe its not the real solution.
Consider that the vast majority of the county’s overall spending can’t be privatized. Including SPLOST and all government funds in 2013, the county spent around $50 million.
• $5.8 million was debt service
• $8.7 million was capital outlay purchases
• $3.3 million was judicial over which the BOC has no say
• $20.7 million was for public safety, mostly sheriff/jail and fire/ambulance
• $555,000 was for the tax commissioner’s office over which the BOC has no say
• $1.6 million were payments to other agencies over which the BOC has no say
And even among the remaining funds, much of it would be off-limits to any kind of privatization efforts. For example, the cost of the BOC itself can’t be privatized.
We have to also realize that while a $50 million government is big to us, in the grand scheme of things, Barrow’s government is relatively small. Last December when consultant Porter first discussed privatization with the BOC, he told the board that because of the county’s small government size, not very many private firms were interested in looking at providing private services here.
At that time, Porter said that he thought the county might save up to $500,000 by privatizing some of its smaller departments. But last week, that list of departments to possibly be privatized was whittled down by county manager Randall Dowling to just nine small areas.
The bottom line is this: It’s very, very doubtful that Barrow County will save any money over the next five years by privatizing a hand full of minor services. In fact, given how many of these private firms operate with government, it’s likely that privatizing those nine departments will end up costing the county more money over a five-year period than it would save.
And anyway, what’s the rush to do anything? The impact of the recession forced the county government to shed people and cut costs. For a while, the county’s finances were teetering and in trouble.
But that cost cutting finally paid off. At the end of FY2013, the Barrow County BOC had over $9 million in reserves on hand, about 30 percent of its revenues. That’s a huge percentage compared to the 15 percent generally recommended by accountants for a government to keep on hand.
Perhaps privatizing some functions would allow Barrow’s leadership to get rid of employee deadwood who’re said to haunt some departments.
But wouldn’t it be cheaper for Barrow’s leaders to man up and fire the slackers rather than continue with the turmoil of privatization discussions?
Although it sounds good politically in a conservative community, privatizing a tiny part of Barrow’s government won’t, in the end, save any taxpayer money. And saving taxpayer money should be the only criteria which is important in this discussion.
The BOC can, however, cut an expense today. It can cut the $20,000 it voted to give consultant Porter last week.
The board doesn’t need a self-serving consultant to give it a spin job.
Common sense makes that clear.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of the Barrow Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.