Frederick County struggles over whether to privatize local services

Proposal to outsource many government functions creates uproar

July 15, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

If Frederick increasingly is known for its trendy restaurants and shops, its historical roots remain a part of its fabric, from a City Hall built on the site of an early protest against British rule to a mall and minor league baseball team named after hometown hero Francis Scott Key.

Now, another revolution could be fomenting as Frederick County considers a radical change to the way it does government business: It is debating whether to outsource many of its public services to private business, road maintenance and parks and recreation programs, budgeting in the finance department and Central Booking at the jail. Should that happen, the county of 233,000 residents would become the largest U.S. jurisdiction to privatize what have traditionally been services provided by public employees.

The proposal, launched by an all-Republican Board of County Commissioners that after last year's elections took on a more conservative, smaller-government cast, has created an uproar. More than 500 county residents and employees descended on Winchester Hall in Frederick, the seat of the county government, for a public hearing on the proposal last week — the first of several scheduled for this month — with most opposing it, and vocally so.

"I think a lot of people wanted to make a point," Mike Ramsburg, a county employee for 26 of his 47 years, said after speaking at the often raucous hearing. "[County Commission Chairman] Blaine Young often says that since he received so many votes, he had a mandate. But we didn't vote for them to dismantle Frederick County government."

Supporters of the proposal characterize opponents as a small but vocal group, one that has gone both online with Facebook pages and recall petitions and to the streets with signs and rallies to defeat the privatization plan.

The controversy has created tensions in this county of small towns and rural areas, where many know someone whose job could be eliminated. There are also those who believe that although voters signaled in November that they wanted a change, the board is moving too fast in upending the way things have been done in Frederick County.

Much of their ire has focused on Young, who as host of a local radio talk show is no stranger to heated debate. He continually stresses that the commission is only studying privatization and has made no decision yet on whether to move toward it, even as he has been outspoken about its benefits.

Opponents point to the fact that to study the issue, the commission hired the consultant who developed and implemented the plan under which Sandy Springs, Ga., considered a model of privatization, outsourced much of its operations to a contractor.

There was no surprise, then, when the consultant, Oliver Porter, released his report last month: Yes, he concluded, privatizing what he called "core services" in the county could cut 13 percent to 21 percent of its budget, which currently stands at $438 million. If Frederick County followed his recommendations, he said, it could save as much as $109 million from its budget over five years.

While opponents cast suspicion on the eye-popping figures, there are many in Frederick County and beyond who support cuts to government spending and say that private companies are more efficient than public employees.

"The concept, I think, is fantastic," said Farrell Keough, a resident of Urbana and a frequent writer on The Tentacle, a Frederick County-based news and opinion website that also publishes commentary by Young. "If you want to do any program, government is going to be your least efficient mechanism."

Keough, who works in information technology for the National Institutes of Health, said his own field is one in which outsourcing is a common practice. He said privatizing some county operations could allow the government to be more flexible, citing as an example building inspectors who could be brought in only to meet demand.

"We as citizens have to pay to have inspectors on all the time, but we haven't had much building lately," he said.

Should Frederick County follow Porter's plan, it would apparently become the largest jurisdiction to outsource so much of its operations to a private contractor. The cities that have generated the most attention for what Porter calls "public-private partnerships" are smaller — Sandy Springs has a population of 94,000.

Sandy Springs is located in Fulton County, which surrounds Atlanta, and some residents had long felt that too many of their tax dollars were being spent on social services in the city. The largely affluent town, which is home to multiple Fortune 500 companies such UPS and Walgreens, incorporated as a city in December 2005 and turned over much of its new municipal government to a Colorado firm.

The move motivated other Georgia towns to similarly carve themselves out of the county and outsource operations — with public safety usually being the major function kept in-house.

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