Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 1, 2017

View from the Hill: Outsourcing by any other name still not so sweet

Outsourcing is starting to become a four-letter word in state government. Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration told lawmakers during a summer study session it’s giving up on privatization of state parks, including a plan to hire a company to raze the inn at Fall Creek Falls and build a new one, at a cost of more than $22 million, then take over the keys and the profits.

The governor reminds reporters the state will move forward with the Fall Creek Falls project but let the next governor decide how parks will operate since he would be out of office by the time the project would be done.

After a state request for proposals for the Fall Creek Falls project was taken off the table, then put back on, but failed to draw any bidders this spring, the governor is tiptoeing around the term “outsource.”

In fact, Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals says the governor never intended to “outsource” Fall Creek Falls. Rather, he intended to have a private company manage and operate the inn. Fall Creek Falls would remain a state park with Tennessee park rangers.

Never mind “outsource” means “to contract for work, jobs, etc., to be done by outside or foreign workers,” according to Merriam-Webster.

When the most recent RFP to rebuild and manage the inn drew no bidders, the governor decided it was “more appropriate to concentrate on rebuilding the inn only and letting the next administration decide how to operate it,” Donnals says.

Oddly enough, the governor was clear about his philosophy toward state parks in 2016-17, even with Tennessee employees worrying about losing jobs and benefits.

“People should take great encouragement in that the state’s investing money in Fall Creek Falls. We haven’t done that in forever, and we have a facility that literally is substandard and it’s hard to keep the number of guests coming there we’d like to,” the governor said.

He added, “All we’ve said is, with all the things the state does, I’m not certain that running a lodge or running marinas or running golf courses is part of what we do better than other folks. If there are other folks that can run that better, they’ll do that. The jobs won’t go away, they will still be the same exact jobs there. The question is should the state be running golf courses and hotels, or can somebody else do that better than us?”

The conundrum is Tennessee’s state parks facilities are said to be in such poor condition no private company wants to take them on, even with the state promising to pour money into projects such as the Fall Creek Falls inn.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat who’s been leading the fight to stop the outsourcing of Fall Creek Falls and other state parks, regardless of the terminology the governor prefers, says he believes the governor is giving up on the issue because he’s been getting hammered.

“And nobody supports it” is also being pummeled, says Clemmons, who has toured state parks and universities with Sen. Lee Harris over the last couple of years gathering opinions on the privatization of parks and higher-education facilities management such as custodial work and landscaping.

Lawmakers found state employees were scared of being shifted to private companies. Area residents didn’t like the thought of having a huge, faceless company running parks and college services.

Those fears prevailed, and still do, even though the Haslam administration has said over and over again no jobs, pay or benefits would be lost, except, of course, for retirement benefits, which are a major perk for Tennessee workers.

The most important thing now is to keep state parks facilities from decaying, Clemmons explains, and he plans to tour the state to find out what work needs to be done, then bring it back to lawmakers to seek funding in 2018.

He also wants to shine a light on the state’s contract policies.

Clemmons and Harris, a Memphis Democrat, sponsored legislation two years ago to create more oversight of state contracts putting services in the hands of the private sector. With Democrats holding a super-minority in the House and Senate, they got nowhere with that bill.

But Republican state Sen. Janice Bowling, who has been beating the drum against Fall Creek Falls privatization, and Republican Rep. Tilman Goins are sponsoring a similar bill designed to get a handle on state contracts. Senate Bill 1047 would require the state’s chief procurement officer provide the comptroller a list of state contracts, grants and costs, and require the comptroller to put them on the state website.

Bogged down?

The Department of Correction, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and TennCare division, during a summer study hearing, said such a rule would hinder their ability to move rapidly, expending contracts and setting up new services.

The Office of Customer Focused Government, which is in charge of a massive contract for outsourcing facilities management in departments across the state, starting with universities, contends it’s already making the state’s best interests part of its daily routine.

No need for more transparency.

For instance, a state advisory board of top officials in the Haslam administration – whose meetings don’t fall under the Sunshine Law – is adding a couple of state lawmakers to ensure it has more legislative oversight and to make sure JLL, the company with the contract, is meeting performance requirements.

So far, only Austin Peay State University has opted for any of the facilities management services JLL is providing.

Charles Burkett, the new director of facilities management and a former advisor to University of Memphis President David Rudd, says he is emphasizing to university leaders they will make the final decision on whether to use JLL, as Austin Peay, is choosing to do with custodial services.

“I don’t have a goal to sign up any university. My goal is to present to them the plans,” he adds. Nevertheless, he has met with university presidents, chancellors and facilities managers at the state’s six state universities to explain the program and has been back to the University of Tennessee five times to “deep dive” into the contract’s offerings.

How the heck?

The state’s goal with JLL and the facilities management contract is cost savings, better service, reducing the risk of violations and improved customer satisfaction, according to Burkett, who testified before the summer study panel.

The former financial services executive might have thought he stepped on the toes of an army of white-gloved housekeepers when he made such a statement.

Rep. Goins, of Morristown, pointed out JLL is in charge of cleaning the Legislative Plaza and the Capitol but can’t keep soap in the second-floor restroom, forcing a legislator to take it upon himself to fill the soap dispenser.

Likewise, Republican Sen. Richard Briggs says his office on the third floor hasn’t been vacuumed in a year. He knows, too, because he sleeps in his office and sees everything that goes on there.

“I don’t speak Spanish, but I do talk to them,” Briggs says of the sub-contractors. “I don’t think anyone would be satisfied with this. I don’t think our job is to be inspectors.”

Rep. Darren Jernigan, an Old Hickory Democrat who is confined to a wheelchair, ran into a similar problem when he dropped his keys in the elevator. The problem was finding someone to deal with the situation, which resulted in a three-hour wait for a call to Connie Ridley, director of Legislative Administration, who was out of town and had to relay information back to another person at the Legislative Plaza to take care of the matter.

Burkett and Mike Perry, the state’s chief procurement officer, say the problems lie with reporting.

In other words, if you need soap, don’t call Ghost Busters. Call one of the two folks who can look into the state’s OneView system if Richard Briggs’ office floor is dirty. Or, write a review on the complaint forms beside a restroom door in the Legislative Plaza, which must be exempt from the state’s service standards.

Tennessee Tower is getting much better service, with surveys showing a 93 percent approval rating since JLL took over, compared to low 60s previously, Perry says.

The defender of privatization points out sub-contracting is nothing new for the state, which had some 540 contracts previously for everything from plumbing and janitorial work to HVAC. JLL is managing few contractors and can do a lot of the work on its own because it “invested” in its employees, Perry says.

But amid the complaints by Goins, Briggs and Jernigan, Perry experienced an epiphany. Legislators and people such as the burgeoning lobbying army and the dwindling media corps might not have JLL to kick around anymore. The whole operation is moving to the Cordell Hull Building this fall and the administration plans to rebid the work, according to Perry.

“You would not be utilizing the current contract,” Perry says.

The analysis

It’s hard to know what to think about these developments.

Haslam was dead set on hiring a private company for construction and operation of the Fall Creek Falls inn. No contractor would touch it, though, and suddenly the time frame is too long. Haslam won’t even acknowledge the word “outsource,” either.

Likewise, state officials have been celebrating JLL’s abilities for the last few years, saying the multi-national firm saves the state millions of dollars by leveraging resources and training employees to do the job. Yet it might not even be managing the Cordell Hull Building.

This could be what happens when the soap dispensers are empty, the carpets get filthy and the inn starts falling apart. It’s enough to make people cuss, even legislators who rarely use four-letter words in public.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger, Hamilton County Herald and Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.