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Our View: Due diligence needed on the issue of privatizing public works




For the third time in 10 years -- and the second time in three years -- the city of Columbus is considering a move to privatize its public works department. 


Tuesday, the city council approved by a 4-2 vote a proposal that will allow Opelika, Alabama-based ClearWater Solutions to proceed with an analysis of the department, including estimates on how much money the city could save if the private firm took on department operations. 


In 2014, when the city faced a $300,000 budget shortfall as it held its budget hearings, a similar study to be conducted by Meridian-based Utility Partners, LLC was rejected when mayor Robert Smith broke a 3-3 tie against proceeding with the study. 


In 2008, the city also rejected a proposed audit of its public works department by Utility Partners. 


It is clear that over the years, the question of whether the city should maintain its own public works department or contract with a private company for those services has not been entirely resolved. 


Between them, the two companies provide public works services for more than 70 cities. The companies maintain that they can save a city a substantial amount of money and many of the cities contacted by The Dispatch supports that claim. 


No doubt, a significant amount of those savings can be attributed to labor costs. While the companies maintain they do not cut pay, they do not provide for 100 percent of the health insurance costs for their employees. In this time of uncertainty in health care insurance, that has the potential for being a heavy blow to public works employees. If the only real savings comes on the backs of the employees, the city should seriously consider if privatizing is the right thing to do. 


Even so, we believe there is no real downside to proceeding with this analysis. The information that comes from the study could be beneficial even if the city chooses to keep its public works department. 


In 2014, the city spent $3.7 million in the public works department, which prompted the city to put the department under the direction of J5 Broaddus, the city's project management firm. Those costs have been reduced by $600,000 based on this year's budget. 


So the city has shown an ability to reduce costs without privatizing its public works. 


Saving money is important, of course, but not if it compromises the quality of service our citizens expect and deserve. 


So we advise the council to carefully study this analysis and consider both cost and quality as they move forward. 


We also strenuously advise the council not to jump at the first offer. We've seen this over and over in the past -- in everything from retail recruiting firms to billboard companies, bus service and health clinics. The first offer is not always the best offer. 


If the city does, indeed, move forward with a plan to privatize public works, it should open itself to as many options as possible. Getting the best deal for the city -- both in terms of cost and quality of service -- demands due diligence. 


It's something the city wants to get right the first time.



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