Frederick Co. decides not to move forward with privatization

The Frederick County Board of Commissioners decided Tuesday to back away from a proposal to privatize many government services, but did not rule out making such a move in the future.

The board voted unanimously Tuesday to discontinue study of a report prepared by a consultant who developed and implemented a similar plan near Atlanta.

Calling the report a "lightning rod" for controversies and misconceptions, board president Blaine Young said, "We felt the best way to move forward at this point was to remove the report. The perception was that it was all or nothing."

Added County Commissioner Billy Shreve, "We decided, 'Hey, let's quit talking about the report. Let's move on.' We were missing the whole value of the discussion because we're talking about the report."

The proposal under consideration by the five-member, all-Republican commission would have outsourced many public services to private business, such as road maintenance, parks and recreation programs, budgeting in the finance department, and Central Booking at the jail. The county of 233,000 would have become the nation's largest jurisdiction to privatize services that have traditionally been provided by public workers.

Consultant Oliver Porter released a report last month concluding that privatizing core services could cut 13 percent to 21 percent from the county budget, currently at $438 million, and save as much as $109 million over five years.

The county League of Women Voters had criticized the report, questioning its methodology and conclusions. Bonnie Bailey-Baker, co-president of the county league, said the group was pleased with the board's decision.

"It was wise of them to back off of the report," she said. "We think there are enough problems with the proposal. We have always supported a more narrow evaluation of the financial problems and support the department-by-department review."

The decision to consider privatization is not a bad thing as long as officials pay close attention to planning and implementation, said Steve H. Hanke, a professor of applied economics at the Johns Hopkins University. Many studies have found that it generally costs twice as much for the public sector to produce goods and services compared to the private sector, he said, but governments must be wary of pitfalls.

"If you don't know what you are doing," Hanke said, "you can get your feet caught up and land in political hot water."

For now, the board president said the county will hold the next two scheduled hearings and consider feedback from employees on retirement plans, furloughs and pay reductions.

"The misconception was that the majority of the board did not care about employees," Young said. "We do care about them. We do appreciate and value their hard work and dedication. We're looking at long-term, of not only putting the county in financial strength for future boards and residents, but also relieving some of the [tax] burden on our residents."

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