Council vote is key to Neall's push for privatization


In the next week, the County Council will decide whether to approve Executive Robert R. Neall's plan to privatize county services or give county workers continued job security.

At stake are the futures of hundreds of workers who cut grass, fix county cars and trucks, patch highways, maintain buildings and sweep floors in county offices.

For the past 20 years, county labor contracts have allowed privatization only as a supplement to the county work force, but Neall is seeking amendments to those pacts.

Negotiations between Neall and two largest labor unions, AFSCME Local 582 and Local 2563 are at an impasse. That means the seven-member council must decide whether to grant Neall's request to remove the contract language protecting workers from being replaced by private contractors.

But while the County Council grapples with the issue, Neall continues to see privatization as a top priority -- not only this year but in the years ahead -- and his department chiefs are searching for ways to reduce the size of the work force through privatization:

* Inspections and Permits Director Robert Dvorak is looking into requiring future operators of rubble landfills to provide their own inspectors. He also is considering contracting out for animal-care chores at the county-run Animal Shelter in Glen Burnie.

* Central Services Director Jerome W. Klasmeier met with one contractor last week, and intends to send a letter to others as a preliminary step toward contracting out some of the duties handled by the county garage.

Klasmeier met Monday with a sales representative from Ryder Public Transportation Services, an Ohio-based firm that is a subsidiary of the Ryder truck leasing operation. Garage staffers zTC also prepared a 52-minute video presentation to explain to firms like Ryder what is involved in repairing and maintaining the fleet of 3,200 vehicles in the county-run garages in Millersville, Annapolis and Glen Burnie.

Klasmeier said some garage functions, such as repairing fire trucks and ambulances, would likely remain a county service because of the specialized training and equipment necessary.

* Chief Administrative Officer Dennis S. Parkinson said that after the budget process ends May 30, department heads will meet with Budget Office analysts to look for ways to make their operations more efficient, with an eye toward privatizing services.

Parkinson said top candidates for future privatization efforts are government functions that involve minimal contact with the public -- maintenance of county vehicles, computer services, county building maintenance and road maintenance work.

"We're looking at support services, anyone who interacts with the public would more or less remain as a county employee," he said.

So far, the call for privatization has led to a proposed 1993 budget that would trim 50 positions from the county payroll by transferring the Office of Manpower, District Court security and operation of the Londontown Public House to private operations.

That's a drop in the bucket in a work force with 4,309 employees. But Neall's pledge to reduce the county payroll by 10 percent over the next three years translates into some 430 jobs, and county officials say many of those positions will be privatized.

"To continue to keep a job on the payroll just because there's a warm body there, regardless of whether it's efficient, to me that just doesn't make any sense," said Parkinson.

But labor leaders say privatization will mean problems.

"Privatization as a support system for public employees is sometimes an acceptable tool, and is worth talking about. But when you get into replacing county workers, that's a whole different matter," said Jim Bestpitch, a sewage

pumping station operator who is vice president of Local 582, which represents 859 blue-collar workers.

Bestpitch, a 15-year county employee, said that he worries about losing his job to privatization. He said he also worries about its effect on the delivery of services.

"You'd get the service cheaper in the beginning, but the contractor has to maintain his margin of profit, and the costs would go up and up each year," he said.

He added that county workers are accountable to supervisors, who report to Neall and the council -- elected officials. Such accountability would be diminished with a private firm that has a long-term contract.

"If your sewer backs up or your road's got a pothole in it, how long is it going to take to get a contractor out there? You don't know," he said.

Parkinson said the county would make sure to set up safeguards, such as performance bonds that would require high quality work for payment.

"We'd see to it there were sufficient controls in the contract to make sure we get what we pay for," he said.

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