Leaner Baltimore County urged Sell some buildings, contract out some work, panel urges.

May 28, 1992|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

Baltimore County should sell or lease nine properties, mostly former school buildings, and hire private companies to perform such services as snow removal, bulk trash pickup and operating the new drunken-driving prison, according to a report from a committee created by County Executive Roger B. Hayden.

The three-page report is a first-blush look at ways the county could save money through privatization, Mr. Hayden said. The idea is to "start a mindset" that supports greater use of private companies to do work traditionally done by government, and save tax dollars.

The county has already begun efforts to privatize in several areas identified by the report. Private bulk trash collection is scheduled to begin July 1 at a charge of $10 per pickup, replacing free county pickups.

The Hayden administration is also trying to get County Council support for contracting-out health care at the Detention Center. And the county is considering hiring a private company to operate the Owings Mills drunken-driving prison, scheduled to open in January 1993.

However, achieving even these goals, and many of the committee's other suggestions, may be easier said than done. The committee recommended, for example, getting rid of six former school buildings, including Cockeysville Elementary, Woodlawn Elementary and one undeveloped former school site in Turkey Point. But old school buildings are often difficult to unload because the county does not like to part with the ball fields and playgrounds that surround them, and politicians have a tendency not to approve any use that might upset neighbors.

The report also recommended that the county get rid of the former Dundalk YMCA building, the former Westchester annex in Catonsville, the Carver annex in East Towson and three county-owned homes in East Towson rented to low-income families for $60-$70 a month.

All the buildings are old, need costly renovations and are expensive to maintain, said Donna Morrison, an aide to the county administrative officer. But the committee made no recommendations about what to do with the programs that are now housed in those buildings. The old Fullerton Elementary School, for example, is being used by the Police Department for its Youth Division and Crime Prevention Bureau.

The former Dundalk YMCA houses recreation programs, an indoor swimming pool, a gym and a shelter for battered women. Other old school buildings are used for county programs for senior citizens, and the Carver annex houses a Head Start program. The former Fort Howard Elementary School already is leased to a private parochial school, but the building needs an estimated $657,400 in renovations that the county doesn't want to pay for.

Another problem with the recommendations is the difficulty of replacing county workers with employees in the private sector. This problem surfaced Tuesday during an hour-long County Council discussion about the possibility of hiring a private contractor to provide medical care at the Detention Center.

Four nurses at the center, who receive extra pay for working in unpleasant, overcrowded conditions, said they would lose at least $3,000 -- 10 percent of their pay -- if they transfer to other county jobs or hire on with a private firm. They gave council members an earful, and derided the idea that a private contractor could save money.

Hundreds of workers could be displaced by the privatizing of snow removal, building security, Christmas tree pickups, sign manufacturing, records management, janitorial services, prisoner transport, repair of county vehicles, county fuel depots and staffing of the employees' health clinic. Privatizing snow removal alone would affect 150 county employees who now run the snow plows each winter.

But some of the ideas might not be feasible. County Public Works Director Gene L. Neff said, for example, that snow is not easily removed from the county's often-winding, narrow secondary roads. The county has already sought bids for the job, he said, but has gotten no response from the private sector.

Mr. Neff also frowned on the idea of privatizing landfill operations. He said the 40 people who now operate the landfills are needed to continue work on capping two old landfills and to operate the remaining one.

The 12-member privatization committee, which submitted the recommendations, was formed by the county executive in November. It was chaired by Towson lawyer John B. Howard.

Mr. Hayden said he has not yet reviewed the plan in detail and, therefore, has not decided whether to accept any of the committee's recommendations.

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