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Milwaukee County Board Nixes Privatization, Again

Leonard Gilroy
October 22, 2009, 7:03pm

Generally speaking, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors has become a destination where good privatization ideas go to die. County Executive Scott Walker knows this well, having made numerous, sensible attempts to pursue outsourcing in several areas of government, only to see them mostly get squashed by the union-friendly County Board. As I wrote in Reason Foundation's Annual Privatization Report 2009,
In September 2008, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker released his 2009 budget, which included proposals to privatize several county services, including vehicle maintenance, operation of the county’s economic support call center and non-medical services at the county behavioral health hospital. The proposal also allocated $500,000 for a study assessing the potential privatization of General Mitchell International Airport. [...]

The privatization discussion quickly became politicized. In November 2008, the County Board cut the privatization measures from its version of the 2009 budget. Walker responded with a series of line-item vetoes that effectively restored nearly all of the privatization measures the County Board had cut. In turn, the County Board responded with a corresponding set of veto overrides that eliminated most of the privatization proposals from the budget. There was one notable exception, however. Walker and the County Board both agreed to proceed on a contract for food services at the behavioral health hospital, replacing 70 food service employees at the complex. This contract began in June 2009.

Walker's plans to privatize Mitchell International Airport failed to move forward after a County Board committee voted unanimously in October 2008 to reject his request for a $500,000 consultant study of a possible deal. Walker had pitched his airport privatization proposal as a way to generate $25 million a year for transit.

Walker indicated that he would likely resubmit separate legislation to recreate some of the privatization initiatives he had originally proposed. He brought the call center privatization proposal back to the County Board in January 2009 and was rejected a second time. The troubled call center has been under fire in recent years for severe staff shortages, prompting citizen complaints and a federal lawsuit. In addition, Walker's administration issued a request for proposals in July 2009 for an initiative to potentially outsource janitorial and security services currently provided by the county facilities division. If it decides to move forward, the administration would include the initiative in its 2010 budget proposal.
Though I suppose it must feel like beating one's head against the wall, I give Executive Walker tremendous credit for his persistence in pursuing these initiatives, because the County is on an unsustainable fiscal path. Apparently that message is still not getting through to some of the County Board:
The County Board's finance committee on Tuesday recommended rejection of privatizing security and housekeeping services at the courthouse complex.

County Executive Scott Walker's budget estimates the moves would save $1.7 million in property tax money next year. They are part of his solution to fill an $80 million hole in the 2010 budget.

The panel also called for rejecting a plan to substitute Air National Guard firefighters for county employees to provide crash and rescue service at Mitchell International Airport. That would save the airport, which is funded mainly through fees from airlines, an estimated $619,000.

Hiring private companies to do the work also would mean elimination of 92 county jobs - 25 airport firefighters, 31 security guards and 36 housekeepers. County workers would get first crack at applying for their old jobs with a private contractor, under Walker's budget. In all, Walker is proposing outsourcing 207 county jobs for 2010, for a first-year saving of $5.9 million.

Supervisors said hiring private firms for security and cleaning posed safety concerns, and private workers wouldn't do the job as well as county workers. [...]

[Walker] disagreed that hiring private firms for security or housekeeping would compromise safety at the courthouse. Major corporations use private security and housekeeping successfully, and the county should also be able to, Walker said.

Walker questioned whether there would be enough votes to kill the privatization moves. He also wants to privatize additional housekeepers, case managers for patients at the Mental Health Complex and mainframe computer technicians.

The courthouse security outsourcing was rejected on a 5-1 vote, and the housekeeping privatization was dumped on a 4-2 vote by the finance panel.
More to come on the continuing privatization saga in Milwaukee County.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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