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VOL. 132 | NO. 97 | Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Privatization Opposition Renewed as No Bids Come in for Falls Creek Falls Project

By Sam Stockard

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The lack of bidders for a $20 million inn reconstruction project at Fall Creek Falls could spur legislative hearings this summer on parks funding and privatization amid growing lawmaker concern about the governor’s outsourcing plans.

Seventy-five of the General Assembly’s 132 members, including several in the Shelby County legislative delegation, asked Gov. Bill Haslam and Terry Cowles, director of the Office of Customer Focused Government, to hold up on outsourcing proposals so lawmakers could study their effect on public services, the economy and state employees. Besides the Fall Creek Falls project, the state is set to offer a private facilities management contract for universities and state departments across Tennessee.

Amid that legislative atmosphere, as well as opposition from state employees and residents in the Fall Creek Falls area near Spencer in rural East Tennessee, no vendors made bids to tear down the park’s old inn and reconstruct a new one. The governor’s proposal also called for the private vendor to take over operations once the new inn was complete.

Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman Kim Schofinski said Monday, May 15, “We are evaluating how to best manage resources as we move forward. We look forward to working with the Legislature on next steps, including any hearings.”

Nevertheless, the Tennessee State Employees Association calls the development a “victory” for the state and its workers.

TSEA executive director Randy Stamps says, given the right tools and the same large amount of money, state employees can renovate facilities and run them well.

The Haslam administration put $55 million worth of capital improvements in its 2015 budget and another $52 million for fiscal 2018, which starts July 1. That includes the money to replace the Fall Creek Falls inn, but restrictions were placed on a separate plan to tear down the inn at Henry Horton State Park in Middle Tennessee and not rebuild it, according to Stamps.

“I believe where we’re heading is that the Legislature is going to be much more involved in helping guide how the money they’ve allocated will be spent on our state parks,” Stamps says.

Stamps predicts legislative hearings this summer amid indications from Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau the state will “re-examine” its parks outsourcing plan.

Comments by legislators during hearings this session questioning privatization of Fall Creek Falls’ hospitality services, in addition to the letter signed by a majority of lawmakers “showed their reluctance” toward further privatizing parks and likely created “uncertainty” among likely bidders, Stamps says.

Rep. Ron Lollar, a Bartlett Republican who signed the letter, also believes it “sent a message,” but he’s still concerned about what steps Haslam might take.

“I don’t know what the governor’s got up his sleeve,” Lollar says, noting he is worried some key parks officials could be trying to “kiss” up to the governor.

The General Assembly adjourned for the year last week, but the House Government Operations Committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday, and Lollar plans to discuss the matter with other legislators then.

RAUMESH AKBARI

Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, also signed the letter out of concern communities could be hurt by the potential loss of jobs to privatization.

Haslam administration officials have said no state employee will lose their job or benefits as a result of outsourcing, but Fall Creek Falls employees could be assigned to different positions or to other jobs within a certain distance of the park.

“I hope that all the players that are potentially interested in making this move understand that it needs to be a really deliberate process and it might not be the best move, and the concern from lawmakers hopefully will highlight that and we will see … at least a little more input and consideration from a community and from lawmakers,” Akbari says.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat who signed the letter, needed more information on the process before commenting on the lack of bidders, but he says legislators will be going out into communities to hold more hearings this summer.

“I would think that if nothing else we’ve proven the point that there are some services that the government delivers which can’t be quantified in terms of private delivery of those same services,” Hardaway says. “Everything the government does, especially when it comes to those type of amenities, can’t be reduced to dollars and cents when we quantify what the benefits are. I think that’s where you get into problems, when you get these profit motives for delivering those same services.”

Memphis Democratic Sen. Lee Harris and Nashville Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons toured the state in 2016 to hear from state employees at UT-Knoxville and UT-Chattanooga as well as Fall Creek Falls and Montgomery Bell State Park.

Clemmons, who spent a night at Fall Creek Falls, says the bidding results show “everyone except Bill Haslam thinks privatizing our state parks is a terrible idea.”

Raising community awareness made it clear to potential bidders they would face “stiff resistance” from communities and people who “value” state parks, he says.

“I would hope his ill-conceived plan is heading straight to where it belongs – in the can,” Clemmons says, though he notes only Haslam knows if the inn project is dead or alive.

Clemmons contends the state needs to upgrade and maintain state parks without outsourcing operations, and says he will continue visiting parks and meeting with staff to gain a better perspective of park needs.

In addition to field trips, legislative hearings are “imperative” this summer to allow the Legislature to “formally insert” itself into decisions on the future of state parks, Clemmons says.

“There has been far too little transparency throughout this entire process, and we, as state legislators, have a right to have our questions answered for those we represent,” Clemmons says. “I already have a line of questioning prepared for these scheming high-paid executive branch employees who are threatening jobs and local economies.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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