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Sunday, Sep 16 2012 11:00 PM

CHAD HATHAWAY: Parks and Rec paves the way for savings with privatization

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    Chad Hathaway

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Since the beginning of Kern County's current fiscal crisis, the county's Parks and Recreation Department has had to sacrifice much of its budget, and it now operates with bare-bones resources. Any citizen not already aware of the county's financial condition can experience the impact of budget cuts firsthand by visiting our local parks. Despite this, Parks and Recreation Director Bob Lerude has been an effective and efficient steward of taxpayer resources. By utilizing contract labor, Lerude has saved the county almost $400,000 a year without laying off one county employee.

On Aug. 21, the Board of Supervisors approved a motion that allows the Parks and Recreation Department to contract out maintenance and custodial services at Lost Hills Paramount Park and county facilities in Wasco, Shafter, McFarland and Delano. The board determined that the county's economic interests are best served by contracting out these services rather than paying additional travel and subsistence expenses to existing county employees. Private contractors can provide maintenance and custodial services, and make basic repairs for about $80,000 a year. It would have cost the county more than $425,000 a year for the exact same services. A private company can do the exact same job for less than a quarter of the cost!

This isn't just a "one-time savings." The county will save money years down the road by not having to fund increased pension and benefits for county employees. All of this was accomplished without putting county employees out of work. Parks and Rec has been working with extremely limited staff and even limited inmates on work release since 2008. Now, it has found a way, and was given approval, to reinvigorate some of its priceless amenities. The mission of Kern Citizens for Sustainable Government is to promote effective, efficient and sustainable economic policy, so we gladly supported staff's recommendation.

With a budget of about $1.6 billion, $345,000 may not seem like much. But the principle behind the savings is priceless. If the county can save these sums elsewhere by incorporating the same techniques, over time, these small savings will become substantial and will help reduce the stress on our overburdened pension system. It goes without saying that not every county service can or should be contracted out to private contractors. Many vital services are best performed by government employees. However, when a public-private partnership results in the same level of service at less than a quarter of the cost, prudence requires that we exploit the savings opportunity.

This accomplishment is just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine what other services can be enhanced by simply consolidating or contracting other services. Think of how many potholes can be filled or how many new streetscapes can be placed in low-income communities. The possibilities are endless if our leaders continue down the path of efficiency and economic sustainability. This small but mighty decision can be the trailblazer for future savings.

The recent temporary agreement with the city of Bakersfield on Animal Control is another example of efficiency. (Hopefully both entities will create a JPA with equitable share of costs.) Numerous other service overlaps can be changed: The almost 50 school districts in Kern County come to mind; so do the county islands within the city limits where countless overlaps by police, fire, solid waste, etc., exist. Imagine the opportunities if we contracted out some services and saved an average of 75 percent in personnel costs. The possibilities are endless.

If county leaders take the concept they approved in August and apply it to the broad spectrum that is county government, the efficiency and sustainability we all dream of is possible. We thank our leaders, elected, appointed and hired, who took a common-sense cost-savings approach and found a way to get the job done. While there is no doubt that a great deal of red tape stood in their way, the point is: It is possible, and it was accomplished.

Chad J. Hathaway of Bakersfield is a local business owner and a board member and co-founder of Kern Citizens for Sustainable Government. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.

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