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Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 5 years ago

My View: Scandalous outsourcing?

by: Rod Thomson

Sarasota County’s new county administrator, Randall Reid, has pegged the county’s “rush” to privatize as the main driving force behind the purchasing scandals that rocked county government and resulted in about 14 jobs lost, one criminal charge and the forced resignation of long-time Administrator Jim Ley.

Ley said the problems came from delegating too many decisions to lower-level staff members who then made errors. Some broke the law. But Reid said increased reliance on private contracts for goods and services, which Sarasota County does for about $300 million annually, was the cause of the purchasing problems.

This could be a risky and costly conclusion for taxpayers.

The county already was trending toward more outsourcing under Ley, in his attempts to keep government from growing too fast. But when the recession hit, the pace picked up quickly to save money, and that’s when the problems multiplied.

Reid now says Sarasota County government will re-evaluate what services could be better accomplished in house. His reputation as more of a statist government bureaucrat than Ley and one who has more faith in government getting things done right and cheaper than the private sector suggests that he may find many opportunities to take more work inside government. That will result in a bigger employee base and a larger benefit pool for county taxpayers to support.

First, it must be noted that it was illegal and immoral behavior by individuals that was at the heart of the scandal. We always want to find systems and society to blame for individual misdeeds when it is usually as simple as a person choosing wrongly. Most choose right, some choose wrong, and we have laws to punish them.

In Sarasota County, employees were using county credit cards for personal purchases, and they may have been the recipients of monetary remuneration for guiding the selection of some vendors. Unethical and illegal. If true, prosecute the villains.

The risk given Reid’s reputation — which we can all hope is overstated — is that the county will be flung backward on this issue, meaning more government workers will be hired and taxpayers will pay more to support a growing local government.

It’s established in studies, history and common sense that with few exceptions — such as the military, police and firefighters — the private sector does things better at less cost.

There are those who despise that truth. For them, one word: incentive. Government lacks it, businesses have it in spades.

Racing back to government workers doing everything will bloat county government and is dutybound to drive up long-term costs for current and future taxpayers.

County commissioners need to resist and force Reid to justify every such move beyond pointing at the scandal of a few.

Reid has hired Ted Coyman to head the county’s purchasing department. Coyman is a former contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense, which gives him experience in purchasing but not necessarily a lot of practice at keeping costs in line. Remember, these were the folks who gave us $400 hammers and other atrocious spending. Unfortunately, on time and under budget is not the reputation of defense contractors.

But there are exceptions. If Coyman can create better practices and oversight, and the county continues to privatize and keep in the private sector, things that can and should be, then we all win. Is that the direction Reid will take?

In the end, if county government grows payrolls and benefits — and benefits are a major problem with government spending now — as the solution to the purchasing misdeeds, it will be a huge mistake and cost all of us.

Rod Thomson can be reached at [email protected].

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