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Report: Larger Privatization Effort Unneeded

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A committee established by county supervisors last year to consider contracting out services handled by the Environmental Management Agency concluded that the private sector is already used for many projects and that a larger privatization endeavor is unwarranted at this time.

The findings, contained in a committee report obtained Friday, mark another blow to privatization efforts, which received enthusiastic support from academics, activists and business leaders in the wake of the county’s Dec. 6, 1994, bankruptcy filing, but have failed to produce major changes.

The committee, made up of business representatives, county bureaucrats, citizen activists and others, was formed last July to evaluate the numerous privatization suggestions for the EMA, which handles parks, public works, planning and transportation services.

The committee’s report found most of the ideas, such as contracting with the private sector for park and beach operations, were unworkable. It noted that private contracts already account for 33% of the operating budgets for three key EMA departments: Public Works, Building and Safety and Harbors, Beaches and Parks.

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Some activists who served on the panel immediately criticized the report, which they fault for prematurely rejecting privatization suggestions concerning parks and other services.

“I think it’s a whitewash,” said panelist Patrick Quaney. “There are a lot of ideas out there that didn’t get enough attention.”

But officials at the Reason Foundation, a Libertarian think tank that aggressively pushed for privatization last year, said they were far less troubled by the results.

“EMA has probably been the leading agency in the county in terms of doing outsourcing,” said Robert W. Poole, president of the foundation. “I am not surprised that there isn’t a large amount more they could do.”

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Supervisor Marian Bergeson also acknowledged the EMA’s privatization efforts, but said more contracting opportunities could present themselves in the future as government restructuring moves forward, and unincorporated islands now served by the county are taken over by cities.

The report found that the EMA already spends more than $40 million a year on private contracts that cover such positions as lifeguards, tree trimmers, street sweepers, architects and engineers.

Some privatization programs have been in place for years, the report said, while others were established after the bankruptcy, such as transferring responsibility for demographic data collection to Cal State Fullerton.

Saying the public’s interests must be protected, the panel expressed “grave concerns” about contracting out the agency’s regulatory functions for land-use planning, code enforcement, agriculture, redevelopment and parks.

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Quaney and other critics agreed that regulatory work should remain in county hands but said other jobs, such as park operations and flood control maintenance, could be contracted out.

The report stated the EMA sought bids for recurring flood control and road maintenance work, but found no interested firms. The committee also said the agency needs to maintain a “core competency of experienced staff with expertise to manage internal and outsourced work.”

A few months after declaring bankruptcy, the county examined the possibility of privatizing the entire 1,200-employee agency but ultimately found the idea unworkable.


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