Weighing Privatization

November 18, 1992

Even people who do not live in Annapolis should be paying attention to the controversy over privatizing the state capital's trash collection at the expense of 29 city workers.

As government leaders at all levels look for ways to save money, privatization is becoming an increasingly popular option. But it's an option that is slow to gain converts because no one can get past the question of whether it's fair to privatize if it means putting government workers out of a job.

Until recently, there has been an unwritten understanding that while a government job may pay modestly, it was secure.

Last spring, when Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall sought power to replace unionized county workers with private contractors, the unions' attorney argued that the county cannot renege on that unspoken promise.

"It's a question of fundamental fairness" to workers who always assumed they had job security, he said.

That premise is wrong. A government contract prohibiting replacement of unionized workers with private firms -- such as the one the county has with its two largest unions -- must be honored. Absent such a contract, however, government workers have no guarantee of lifetime employment. Privatization is one way to reduce fixed costs, such as employee health benefits, without eliminating services. If governments can save money by hiring private contractors, they have a responsibility to taxpayers to consider it. Government does not exist to serve its workers.

Privatization is not necessarily a magic cure-all for budget ills, though. It is an option that may work for some public services but not for others. Before the county privatizes its roads department, for example, it ought to consider whether private contractors would respond to a pothole complaint as promptly as county workers. If government workers are doing a superior job, it would be penny-wise and pound-foolish to replace them with cheaper but less-skilled private contractors. If private contractors are used, performance bonds to ensure quality are a must.

Laying off workers is never pleasant. But in these recessionary times, government must be as pragmatic as any business.

The issue for Annapolis officials is not whether it's fair to fire 29 workers, but whether their city will be best served by having them continue to collect its garbage.

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