Fight against privatization roils a Maryland county

FREDERICK, Md. – Hundreds of Frederick County workers packed the county hearing room to speak to the five county commissioners two days in a row this week. They were deeply concerned about a hasty effort to privatize all core county services. This would call for cuts of over 500 county human resource and public works jobs based on a faulty $25,000 consultant report submitted in June by PPP Associates of Georgia.

The report, written by one Oliver Porter, was not impartial, according to Bonnie Bailey-Baker, co-president of the League of Women Voters. It favors privatization. The report indicates all county government services and departments could be open to outsourcing.

“It would resemble a company town,” stated one observer.  

The Porter report was evaluated by Professor Donald Kettl of the University of Maryland after many employees and the League of Women Women Voters questioned its validity. Kettl found it lacking in facts, particularly as to how its authors arrived at an estimate of $84-$109 million dollar savings for the county and how oversight would be accomplished.

Kettl said this put up “red flags” for him. He said in an interview that no county in the country has shifted to private contracting on as large a scale as quickly as being proposed.

In an initial closed-door hearing, 30 workers, one by one, got up to speak and vigorously oppose the report. At a later public meeting, a stream of county residents came before the commissioners to oppose the outsourcing proposals based on the negative impact it would have on families in the county.

County workers and division directors representing the departments of Aging, Human Services, Family Partnerships, Highway, Construction, Parks, Technical and Workforce Services stood to speak before the packed room to defend their jobs, give suggestions, and discuss the danger of losing long time skilled employees.

“Experience,” they repeatedly stated, “is irreplaceable.”

Fear of losing the jobs and security has already caused some experienced employees to leave county employment to look for work elsewhere, noted one person.

Outside the building, community supporters carried signs to express their concern for the county which has had better services than most in the country. Many feared this was an attempt to eliminate benefits through the “back door,” and that privatization would dismantle county services.

There was a general feeling, however, that the commissioners had already made up their minds. When the general public met with the commissioners in a hearing on Thursday, community residents were concerned that the county was rushing to dismantle services with no idea how to replace them. A speaker suggested that the commissioners read the many available NACo (National Association of Counties) studies on privatization experiences that show them mainly to be failures.

A county employee from the building inspectors department noted that they were already working with a 40 percent cut in staffing. Other departments have dealt with they general economic crisis by reducing the work week to four days and reducing sick time, pay and benefits. Yet, they added, they have kept quality of service high and continue to take pride in their work.

An instructor from Workforce Services visually demonstrated by holding up a $1 dollar bill the yield from that investment spent on her department. The yield was $27.84. She counted each dollar out on the table to great applause.

Another speaker submitted a report, “backed by facts,” showing that the county could save $67 million between 2012-2016 by keeping current levels of experienced employees intact without privatizing. With some sarcasm, she detailed her facts unlike the questionable estimates in the Porter report.  

Oscar Shenkel of the Highway Department said he had not had a raise in five years. “Savings of materials for later use and in house training to do jobs without calling in expensive contractors were already being done. All this has saved taxpayer money. We have the experience and know what suggestions to make. Ask us,” he said.

“The fact that we have had to come here today to defend our jobs is a travesty!” Rick Little from the technology department said. “We are members of the community not just employees. We have an interest in the county not just profit!”

The general conclusion of employees and residents was that the Porter report was not properly researched, that it was biased in favor of privatization and ended being a $25,000 waste of the taxpayer’s money.

At the end of the four-hour public hearing, after much controversy and discussion, the five commissioners threw out the pro-privatization Porter report.

Family needs in the county must be prioritized. Privatizing core county services would dismantle the current system based on the excuse to have “less government.” The system should not benefit only some of the people.

The fight in Frederick County reflects similar efforts in many states and localities and on the federal level to dismantle government-provided services regardless of their successes. It is based on the right-wing ideology of making government smaller, decreasing representation of the people, and further siphoning taxpayer money from the government to the private sector.

As labor and its allies showed in Frederick County, however, when working families stand up to right-wing policies, they can win.

Photo: Frederick County, Md. residents packed public hearings this week in protest against plans to privatize public services. (PW/Vivian Weinstein)


Vivian Weinstein
Vivian Weinstein

Vivian Weinstein was born and raised in New York City. She moved to New Jersey and raised two sons. A working mom, Vivian held jobs in factories and offices, and finally, as a welder in the Brooklyn Shipyard.

Later, she graduated as an RN from Bronx Community College specializing in ICU/CCU. She then got a BA from University of Oregon.

Throughout her life Vivian has been active in the civil rights movement and for peace, most notably organizing against the war in Vietnam.

Vivian moved to Texas to be close to her son and his family after she suffered a catastrophic illness and lost all her money and her house. She began to expand her writing into journalism with her son's gift of a digital camera.