Time to Prove if Privatization Works ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

December 07, 1992

Does privatization of government services work?

In spite of all that has been written about Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall's crusade for privatization and a thwarted plan for private trash collection in Annapolis, that question remains. No one has documented how much privatization would save in these matters, or shown how it can be made to work effectively in the public sector.

Mr. Neall is now lobbying the public to support removal of contract language that protects members of county unions from being fired and replaced by private workers. He believes privatization is critical for saving money, especially now that a property tax cap is in place.

But privatization is an extremely touchy issue because it means putting government employees out of work. If Mr. Neall hopes to persuade the County Council -- which has the final say when negotiations between unions and the administration break down to remove the contract language, he must provide some hard data to back up his argument. The council is notoriously loathe to make difficult decisions. True, changes in the political climate may put more council members on Mr. Neall's side than he had last year. Yet it's a safe bet that the majority of the seven legislators will not vote to put county employees out of work unless they are given very compelling reasons to do so.

L To sell privatization, Mr. Neall must accomplish two things.

First, he must do what he does best -- number-crunching. He must show exactly how much the county would save by privatizing certain services. (Annapolis continues to have city trash collection largely because privatization supporters failed to this). And he must be specific. The council will be leery of removing the language if it has no idea how extensively Mr. Neall intends to use privatization.

Second, and this is crucial, the administration has to build a case for the quality of government contracts. A recent story in the New York Times revealed that poorly supervised federal contractors have wasted billions. It raised serious questions about whether private firms really can do the government's work better and for less money.

Mr. Neall believes they can. Privatization, he says, is a "1900s tool" to deal with a 1990s problem. He needs to do more to prove it.

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