Privatizing our parks? Bad idea!

There’s a news story about Governor Paterson’s “plan” to lay off some 900 state workers.  The big hits are to the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Office of Parks, Recreation, & Historical Preservation.   As is usual, the politicians have “ideas” about it.  One of them was “privatization” of the state campgrounds and some of the park facilities.   Let’s call it what it is:  Outsourcing.  Hire someone  – or let someone pay you – to do something you’ve been doing yourself.   It’s been a popular idea for the better part of two decades in various areas, both private and public.

What’s my problem with it?  It generally doesn’t work.  I used to work in the tech sector, and one of the dirty little secrets in the tech sector is that an astonishing percentage of outsourcing deals are abject failures.  At one time, it was over 75% of them.  More recent figures show that it’s down to just over 50%.  Think about that for a moment.   In a sector where supposedly executives are aware of what they’re doing, over one in two contracts end up being failures.  That’s the improvement that you see over the course of a decade.   Well, the public sector does better on that, right?  Not really.  All one has to do is read the news, and you’re inundated with stories of cost overruns, poor management, lack of accountability, and poor service.   That’s if the company that has the contract hasn’t decided that it’s not making enough money, and bails on the deal.

What I distinctly noticed in the article was that no one in the government is suggesting selling the properties themselves.  In some cases, the state can’t sell them – it’s forbidden by the state constitution.   Which means that while the state gets the opportunity to move the personnel costs “off the books,” they are still responsible for everything else.  Anyone who thinks that a company which does not have an ownership stake in the property is going to do much to the infrastructure is dreaming.   They’ll do the absolute minimum they can, and if it’s not specifically in the contract, they won’t.  Given the infrastructure problems that already exist, it just means further deterioration, if not accelerated deterioration.

I’ve been through several  evaluation processes for outsourcing services in my life, as well having been a contractor.  That’s the reason every alarm bell I had went off when I was reading that story.  The idea of “privatization,” or what it really is, outsourcing, is that someone else will perform a service that you used to perform, but do it as well and cheaper. Which is usually where things fall apart.  The people who negotiate and monitor the contracts are not the people who know the services needed very well.  In NY’s case, it’d be the Office of Government Services, which, one might note, is not the OPRHP or the DEC.  From the business’ standpoint, they’re going to try to move as much out of the “standard services” section and into the “extra services” as they can.  Extra’s cost more money, and are more profitable.  The end result?  The “cheap” and “cost saving” turns into a poorly managed, expensive disaster.     Does it have to happen that way?  No, but that’s the way it will happen.   It’s a guaranteed recipe, whenever senior executives leap to the conclusion that they can save money by doing it.

The practical side is that hiring someone to run and staff your parks just means that they will do just that – at the lowest level they can.  Which leads to the other issues.  These are state parks.  One of the things I remember getting told in new employee briefings was “remember, you represent the state.”  Which, if it’s privatized, they don’t.  They represent their employer, who is not the state.  There’s a difference.  There are also legal and regulatory issues.  There are a number of tasks and responsibilities which the state has added to the plate of the parks over the years, like invasive species education and control, recycling efforts, in addition to enforcing various regulations.  State employees have certain authority given to them by law and regulation for those purposes.  Private contractors don’t.   Which means that it won’t be done, or the state is going to have to assign people to the parks for that purpose.

All of that is why I oppose the idea of privatizing our parks.  Instead of really evaluating our park systems, and looking at what is really needed – and yes, some parks may have to be closed or sold – along with developing a long term funding plan, they’re going with a quick and dirty “fix” which will cause serious problems down the line – and not that far down the line.

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9 responses to “Privatizing our parks? Bad idea!

  1. NYCO

    I am in complete agreement, and your point about employees being authorized to enforce regulations rings true. Do people understand that the parks are not just about camping facilities and swimming? They’re about forests, animals and other living things. I would support park closures over privatization.

    • It is true. I still remember the section of the law from my park ranger days – Section 190 of the Environmental Conservation Law. I had to use that a lot when people asked “what gives you the right to tell me what to do?” ” The badge, the uniform, and section 190 of the ECL.” Heck, I could even write tickets if I had to. I understand from friends that that particular capability got taken away about a decade ago.

      Most people really don’t understand what it is that park people do – and it’s a lot more than just run a booth, clean bathrooms, and make sure the garbage is picked up. That’s just the visible part. They also have a lot of other tasks. My own feeling is that if they privatized them, all they’d be contracting is the booth, bathrooms, and garbage part, and the rest of it would fall under “not our job.”

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  3. Privatizing parks will work about as well (poorly) as privatized correctional facilities.

    While you and I have kicked this back and forth just a bit i would still advocate for the users/visitors picking up more of the operation costs through higher use revenues. You’re right in that some parks may need to be sold or closed. I would be looking at the park attendance versus operating costs and start figuring where closures or sales should begin.

    I’d rather see less parks with higher fees than privatized parks any day.

    • The DEC campgrounds actually do make money. They’re profitable – according to the recently fired Commissioner’s testimony back in January, in 2009 they made a profit of 2.5 million dollars. The problem for them is that the money goes back into the General Fund, and then when the next fiscal year comes along, they get cut along with everyone else. It wasn’t supposed to be set up that way, but thanks to Governor Pataki, it now is. I had to do some digging to find that out – one of the common phrases I heard around town was “What the hell did they do with all the money the campgrounds made?” I haven’t seen any financial statements, but I hear they did better this year. Not that they’ll see it next year (sigh).

      The OPRHP parks tend to charge less per day than the DEC parks, and their problem is that they have a lot of “dead weight” to deal with. You go through the lists, and you find a number of things that really make you wonder why the state has it anyways. There’s a big mansion down by Cooperstown that the state owns and is restoring. Why, I have no idea. I gather that it’s “historic,” but whether it actually should be a part of the state park system is debatable. I would imagine there’s a few golf courses out there that the same argument could be made – although, right now, the private golf courses are having their troubles, too, so I doubt there’s a big demand on the market.

      What gets me is that after the blow-up this spring, no one in Albany ever sat down and said “OK, what do we do?” It drives me nuts.

      • That profit going back into the general fund is crap for sure. I imagine the parks that earn profits could put those profits to great use to improve their park, thereby getting more visitors and earning more. That’s something the state needs to revert back to instead of dumping it into the general fund.

        It seems to me that the mansion needs to be turned over to some historic preservation society that can restore it using private funding and donations, then operate it charging a visitors fee for those touring the mansion????

        As for public golf courses, while I understand they are much more affordable for the average citizen to use they really need to be profitable. If not, well….close them. If it was private and not making a profit (or at least breaking even) that’s what would happen – out of business.

        As for Albany sitting down and figuring out what to do – does that really surprise anyone? They’d rather it become a “crisis” so they take some fast actions (not necessarily right or good ones) and “save” the parks.

        *stepping onto my soap box^

        And I want to say something about parks employees – my wife, daughter and I use state parks in our area for pleasure outings and we’ve always had knowledgeable, hard-working, and friendly staff ready to help out and make our visits great. Visitors should remember to always treat them with respect for the dedication they give to make visitors welcome and their visits enjoyable experiences.

        *off soap box*

        • No disagreement from me. :) What upset a lot of people around here (including myself) was that many of us used to work at the campgrounds. The way it was set up was that the money the campgrounds earned went into a “special reserve account.” The revenue they earned paid for the next year’s operations. That is what most of us thought was still in place, hence all the questions when suddenly DEC cut budgets and tried to close various campgrounds to “save money” – after a banner year.

          I did some poking around, and finally found someone who told me what was happening now. The “special reserve” is emptied out at the end of the season, and transferred to the General Fund. There’s supposed to be a transfer back when the new budget is passed. What happened is that the entire sum isn’t transferred back – it’s a fraction of it. They’re not “skimming” anymore, they’re taking a big chunk of it.

          I know that OPRHP has the same issues. I said to NYCO way back when that just because a given park may be doing well, it doesn’t mean they have that money to spend. I do know, from the reaction this spring when the state announced they were closing some of the parks, that people are willing to cough up what it takes to keep them open. Most of our politicians lined in a hurry when the fury of their constituents hit them. ;) But we do need to have real analysis and thought put into what we’re going to do, because each year we’re going through the same damn routine.

          • This may sound stupid….but what about a small group of concerned/interested citizens doing their own analysis and coming of with options/plans on their own?

            Then publicize it and push it so much that it forces local, regional and state government to pay attention.

            If government won’t act, then the people must.

  4. This may sound stupid….but what about a small group of concerned/interested citizens doing their own analysis and coming of with options/plans on their own?

    It’s not stupid, it’s something several groups have been doing, and yes, I have something I’m kicking around before publishing. ;)

    One of the things I’m somewhat hopeful for with the new governor is that some of these things will start happening. Everyone of us is really, really tired of the current governor.