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Advertise on the Tentacle

June 13, 2011

Packing or Unpacking Politically?

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

So, the county commissioners want to examine privatizing services. Nothing new here, governments at all levels have looked to shift certain services from the public to the private sector for decades.


As is typical in modern political debate, conservatives argue that the private sector, with their profit motive mentality, will squeeze the best and highest level of quality out of the service.


Liberals counter that privatizing services will inevitably erode the service, as government “cares” more about the people it serves and will accommodate needs with greater care and compassion than the free market will.


Both are wrong, and as has been proven time and again, it really depends on the types of services being shifted from government to private business as to whether any money is saved, or if services degrade over time. There are no cookie-cutter answers to this problem.


The whole privatization discussion here started with an article about Sandy Springs, GA. This community was created by an act of the Georgia legislature and was essentially a super homeowners association until the municipality was created. Almost all of the major services were already being provided by the private sector, so using that model to determine the viability of shifting existing government services to the private sector is truly an apples-to-oranges comparison.


There are literally thousands of more pertinent examples, though. From Indianapolis to Louisville, and from northern California to rural New Hampshire, certain services previously performed exclusively by government workers have successfully been transitioned to private businesses, reducing costs and enhancing the level of service.


In spite of dire warnings from progressives, it can be done.


It isn’t the idea that it might be possible to reduce the cost of government or even improve service levels through privatization that has the opposition so jacked up, though. The bugaboo is in the process, not so much the product. More on that shortly.


Many, led by former County Commissioner Kai Hagen, suffer from a political disorder known simply as BDS- or Blaine Derangement Syndrome. It seems as though any statement, utterance, or pronouncement by radio-host-turned-Commissioner Blaine Young sends Kai and his minions into fits of uncontrolled and illogical discomfort.


This crowd, the BDS sufferers, are beside themselves with the idea that Frederick County voters overwhelmingly rejected the vision of the last Board of County Commissioners and opted to turn the keys over to a new approach, albeit a 180 degree shift in basic philosophy.


Current Commissioner David Gray, the lone holdout from the board led by President Jan Gardner, is really struggling with this. You can see it in his body language; you can hear it in his commentary.


Mr. Gray accuses Mr. Young and the other commissioners of avoiding the “hard work” of government. He remembers fondly a different time, a time when 8-hour long public meetings were de rigueur, when the public and staff would sit in the third floor hearing room for hours listening to the commissioners hold forth on their philosophy and vision for controlled growth, expanded human services, and pretty much whatever else tickled their collective fancies.


This new board shuns the old ways. Instead of a horse-drawn buggy approach to dialogue, the current commissioners takes the bullet train approach, zipping through a 30-item agenda so fast that the transition between presenters becomes the delay factor.


This is most evident when it comes to the adoption of the annual county budget. Historically, the budget process was a grind, a months-long slog through the details of county services. The previous board seemed to revel in this process, spending long days marching various county departments through the hearing room to justify their piece of the pie.


Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean has been interpreted into the modern phrase “moderation in all things.” Nowhere is that more true than in our government.

Where the Jan Gardner-led board saw fit to rezone land into less intensive open space uses, the Young board appears intent on granting development rights and privileges to restore perceived property value.


Where the Gardner board was known for extended discussion and debate on pretty much any topic, the Young board flies through its daily business, with motions and seconds offered sometimes before the staff presentation is even complete.


Where the Gardner board subscribed to a government can-do-better mentality, the Young board is driven by its faith in free enterprise, and its inherent suspicion of all things governmental.


That brings us back to the examination of privatized services. Where the Young board has stumbled is in the perceived secrecy associated with this study. Keeping the consultant’s report, which was paid for by the taxpayers, a secret until it is presented to the commissioners is a mistake.


If, for no other reason (and there are many), the report should be made public immediately so that the BDS sufferers cannot manufacture a conspiracy. By holding the report back from public scrutiny, opponents will argue that something evil is afoot. Whether true or not, the self-imposed confidentiality breeds the fantasies of a fevered mind.


We want to know as much as possible as soon as possible, be it charter government, land use, budget or shifting services to the private sector. We almost always make better decisions for ourselves than the government does, and if we feel that our political leaders fail to understand our desires, we vote them out of office.


Kai Hagen hasn’t really learned that lesson, although the evidence should be painfully clear to him. David Gray will continue to be reminded – with every vote over the next three years.


The question is whether Blaine Young, Kirby Delauter, Billy Shreve and Paul Smith will. Blaine has made it clear he intends to serve only one term, so he probably doesn’t care. It isn’t clear with the others. They might give a nod toward the past and expand on their transparency a bit.


We don’t really want long hours of debate among elected officials, so a return to the conduct of past boards isn’t the answer. What we want is a rigorous, open examination of ideas and strategies to provide essential services for the least public investment. We want a county in which people can work, recreate, and live in relative harmony and economic stability.


If our elected leaders at least make an effort in this regard, they’ll be rewarded at the ballot box. If not, they’ll be sent packing politically, forced to spend their time longing for a time when they, too, fed at the public trough.


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