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Pioneer Editorial: Privatizing city services could work

A call to privatize government services always sends up a red flag, especially if there is a fear that the private sector profit motive may run counter to the public sector goal of performing a public service for the common good.

A call to privatize government services always sends up a red flag, especially if there is a fear that the private sector profit motive may run counter to the public sector goal of performing a public service for the common good.

The Bemidji City Council at its meeting Monday will consider and may take action to privatize the operation of the city's wastewater treatment plant. We have a lot of questions, but the proposal merits study and may well be a solution to run the plant efficiently and yet more cost-effectively in the private sector than the public sector.

We do believe, however, that public input is warranted on such a sea change in city government operations, and would hope councilors put off formal action Monday until a public hearing can be held to gain public input on the concept.

The issue apparently boils down to staffing. After putting out feelers in December, the city received proposals from four private firms to operate the treatment plant. Staff rated and ranked the proposals, dismissing two for lack of adequate information or showing no savings to the city by moving private. The remaining two would offer four full-time staff (Veolia Water) with staffing 42 to 44 hours a week, and five full-time staff (People Service Inc.) with staffing of 50 hours a week. Now, eight full-time city employees operate the treatment plant.

It costs the city $1 million a year to operate the plant, funded through sewer and water fees, but the fund is expected to hit deficits starting in 2011. The privatizing plans would save the city annually $104,050 to $118,612, depending upon which firm is selected. One question we have is what do eight city employees now do that four or five private sector employees can do? And, does the plant need 24/7 staffing?

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Both firms being recommended by city staff have extensive experience in running wastewater treatment plants -- more than 100 between the two of them -- but we would still like assurances that public health would be maintained, that proper testing and maintenance schedules are put in place, and that procedures for quick response are established in cases of treatment plant shutdown or other emergency.

While city staff would be cut with privatizing, we would hope that either firm would consider current employees under their direction. The savings are significant, but no doubt future positions will also be needed if the city is successful in building a regional events center.

An example we can look to is Beltrami County, which privatized its solid waste program to Magnuson Trucking & Leasing of Bemidji. The partnership has worked well, with Magnuson using its private sector principles to run a public sector program efficiently and cost-effectively. Beltrami County Environmental Services performs oversight, but it is Magnuson that provides the gamut of public services as specified in its contract with the county.

Putting more jobs in the private sector should be welcomed -- as long as public health and safety isn't compromised.

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