VOL. 132 | NO. 104 | Thursday, May 25, 2017
View From the Hill
Unwilling Private Sector Gives Park Workers a Victory
SAM STOCKARD, Nashville Correspondent
Two state parks are celebrating victories in an atmosphere of uncertainty created by the governor’s penchant for privatizing state functions.
Fall Creek Falls drew no bidders for a $20 million plan to hire a vendor who would tear down its inn, construct a new one and take over operations for 10 years. Henry Horton State Park, meanwhile, is set for $10 million in improvements this coming fiscal year, including upgrades to its hospitality facilities, plus a new visitors center, rather than a proposal to raze its inn and not rebuild.
“We can only speculate why no vendor bid” on the Fall Creek Falls plan, says Randy Stamps, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association. “But I think it had partially to do with the legislative environment and the local environment, which both had serious questions about even going with privatization.”
Given the same funding and backing private companies would net from state government, Tennessee employees are fully capable of rebuilding and running state parks, Stamps adds.
State Sen. Janice Bowling, likewise, is “quite pleased” the outsourcing of Fall Creek Falls appears to have halted amid the failure of any concessionaire to bid on the project.
The Tullahoma Republican considers this an opening for the state to move forward with a previous bid from Blankenship and Partners of Knoxville to renovate the inn at a much lower price – without turning it over to private concerns. Bowling says engineering and architectural plans are complete, in addition to approval from the Commerce and Insurance Department’s Fire Marshal Office.
Bowling adds she’s heard it could cost taxpayers upward of $32 million to construct a new inn and let a private vendor run it for a decade, giving up 88 percent of the profit. Even though the new inn would be considered a major improvement for Fall Creek Falls, it would reduce the number of rooms to 95 from 144 at same time nightly rates would jump to about $150 from $75.
In addition, state employees, including those at the Fall Creek Falls golf course, were to be hired by the new vendor, if anyone had made a bid, or moved to different positions at the park or with the state, or even bought out, if necessary.
“There was just so much about that (request for proposals) that we don’t know for sure, which is another problematic situation, but from what we heard, it was not in the best interest of our state parks or the taxpayers and citizens of Tennessee,” explains Bowling, who doled out plenty of criticism on the proposal during legislative hearings this session.
In fact, the Fall Creek Falls plan stalled earlier this year amid concerns about engineering, architectural work and construction being taken on by the contractor, an unprecedented step removing it from authority of the State Building Commission. Bowling notes the vendor would have designed everything to meet its own business model.
Calling Fall Creek Falls the “tip of the spear,” Bowling says she believes these two turnabouts could represent a bit of a cooling-off by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, at least as far as privatizing state parks.
State Sen. Jim Tracy, a Bedford County Republican, and Rep. Rick Tillis, a Lewisburg Republican, met with the governor and his people earlier this year to let them know how important the Henry Horton inn is to the park and the surrounding community.
“It’s a great place for retreats, corporate outings and so forth. We think the potential’s there, and they obviously agreed with us to a certain extent. …,” Tracy says. “So, we feel pretty good where we are on that. We feel good we made some progress. The governor and his folks listened to our plea on that.”
But while Haslam often contends state government can do a better job for the general public at building roads and running school systems, he says he doesn’t believe the state should be operating hotels, golf courses and marinas.
With that in mind, these victories are probably more a result of public outcry and vendor apprehension than a softening of Haslam philosophy.
The governor’s office referred questions to the Department of Environment and Conservation on these two matters, with spokeswoman Kim Schofinski saying the state is “evaluating” how to manage resources on Fall Creek Falls while considering “options” for the Henry Horton inn. At the same time, it “looks forward” to legislative hearings, which could be held this summer.
“Our philosophy has always been to do what is in the best interest of Tennessee taxpayers and state park visitors,” Schofinski adds.
Some people would call those code words for slashing.
The Democrats’ view
Sen. Lee Harris, who toured the state last year talking to University of Tennessee employees and Fall Creek Falls and Montgomery Bell State Park workers, is calling Republicans’ hand on this deal.
Even though Harris is glad the Fall Creek Falls deal is on ice, he points out Democrats sponsored several bills in the General Assembly to slow down outsourcing but received little help from supermajority Republicans.
Among those were measures to send outsourcing contracts to the Legislature for approval, to stop outsourcing at state parks and to repeal little-known language requiring state parks to turn a profit.
“At this point, the record is relatively clear. In the debates we have had around outsourcing, it’s been Tennessee Republicans leading the opposition and, oddly enough, many of them are from rural areas. The only thing many Tennessee Republicans seem willing to do to stop outsourcing is superficial, at best. They’ll a sign a letter or two purportedly in opposition, but so far have been unwilling to do anything meaningful,” Harris says.
“After failing to support three different approaches to slow or stop outsourcing, I have come to one conclusion about Republicans in the Tennessee Legislature. The reason outsourcing efforts continue is because Republicans in the Tennessee Legislature support outsourcing.”
Harris makes a good point, because ultimately the way people vote should determine their stance. On the other hand, there’s a big difference between passing a law and handling business through negotiations, and there was plenty of room for that this session as the governor sought to raise gas and diesel taxes through the IMPROVE Act.
Republican Senate leadership sat on the sidelines to a large degree this session, preferring instead to focus on the gas tax/tax cuts package and saying they could accept outsourcing if it cuts costs. Whether it can save money remains a point of contention.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican, notes, “There’s a lot of underlying angst about it. … It may be that the failure to get any takers is an opening.”
The bid shortage at Fall Creek Falls could have to do with asbestos in the building. An effort to outsource park operations in 2015 also failed to draw any takers.
“The flip side is … if those facilities are in such bad shape that nobody would want them, what does that say about our ability to maintain them in the first instance?” says Norris, a key player in the governor’s budget process.
Whether Republicans are purely to blame, as Harris says, could be challenged.
At least Bowling and Sen. Steve Dickerson, a Nashville Republican, remain critical of the rush to outsource parks and facilities management with a statewide contract. Both signed a letter, along with a majority of legislators, urging the governor and the Office of Customer Focused Government to hold up on outsourcing until they can figure out its impact. Dickerson could lead summer hearings on the matter.
What is clear, however, is this: If the state can put $20 million-plus into a new Fall Creek Falls inn and then give the keys to a private contractor, it obviously has the money to take care of park property. It simply has to do it.
Says Bowling, “I think the most important thing is that the people of Tennessee be served, and the sooner we can get the open contract that’s an excellent contract and is ready to be culminated, that would be great for everybody.”
She points out the state has no maintenance plan or revenue stream for recapitalization of parks, calling it budgeting “101” to set up a plan to take care of the state’s assets.
“To say, ‘Oh gee, these haven’t been taken care of, and we’re gonna drain the park workers and tear down the buildings,’ is not a solution,” Bowling explains. “That’s almost the refusal to accept the responsibility of what needs to be done, which is create that revenue stream, give top-down expectations and management initiatives.”
Instead of trying to shift parks to global corporations, the state should focus on preserving affordable vacation spots with a connection to the heritage in every locale, she says. The people who grew up in those areas know the land, the history, even the families who deeded the property to the state for parks, Bowling points out.
“That’s just part of what makes state parks so wonderful,” Bowling says.
To blame state employees for aging facilities, though, is nothing but a slap in the face, when some routine spending on maintenance and refurbishing would do the job. People looking to spend a weekend at Henry Horton or Fall Creek Falls don’t need – or necessarily want – a four-star hotel. If you’re hiking to the falls and swimming in the creek, you’re more likely to want a camp site than a plush hotel room.
But these should be the ultimate questions: One, is it the taxpayers’ duty to construct buildings for private enterprise? And two, does everything have to be like freaking Disney World?
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News and The Nashville Ledger. He can be reached at email@example.com.