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Money and powder

County weighs risks and rewards of privatizing plowing


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An anti-tax group's case for privatizing snow plowing and other government tasks may be gaining traction as local governments slide in a weak economy. The private sector, members argue, can do the same work for less money.

But that argument could take a hit in a planned "experiment" to let a private contractor plow a section of El Paso County roads this winter. County employees, it turns out, can do the job for $66 an hour, compared to $86 an hour for the cheapest private bid, according to public services manager Tim Wolken.

"We have the staff and the trucks," Wolken explains.

For now, anyway. The real savings, acknowledged by Wolken and argued by Paul Kleinschmidt, executive director of Taxpayers for Budget Reform, will come if the county reduces its 42-truck fleet, along with the employees who use them to gravel, repair and plow the county's 2,000-mile network of roads.

That means the decision before county commissioners — who will learn more about the proposals at their Dec. 17 meeting before deciding how to proceed — is whether they want to start down a road that could make it harder for them to provide future services.

Commissioner Wayne Williams, often the loudest voice on the five-member board when transportation issues come up, says he approaches the discussion with an open mind.

"What's the best service for taxpayers?" he asks. "If the government can do it more efficiently, then great."

It appears, at least in the short-term, that government can for the proposed plowing contract covering the Cimarron Hills area, a populous sliver of unincorporated land bounded by Powers Boulevard on the west, Carefree Circle on the north, Marksheffel Road on the east and U.S. Highway 24 on the south.

Kleinschmidt, though, questions the county's snowplow estimate: For starters, he says, the county might have gotten less expensive bids had it requested them before contractors made winter plans. He adds that the county doesn't factor in costs for things like parking lots, buildings and keeping a full staff.

(Wolken admits that those longer-term costs aren't included, and he adds that county plowing rates go up $9 when drivers have to put in overtime.)

Kleinschmidt wants to see county and city governments go further, and sell lawn mowers, pavers and the facilities that house them, so private companies can get in on the action.

Selling equipment could raise money, but Commissioner Dennis Hisey wonders about the long-term risk. If contractor rates climb after the county cuts its fleet, where would the county turn?

Cmdr. Jim Reid, emergency manager for the sheriff's office, has another question. He'd count on county trucks to help build fire lines during wildfires, or to haul materials during a local flood; would private trucks be available to perform the same tasks?

Snowplowing also gets into tricky political and budgetary terrain, particularly when hourly rates give an incentive to plow the slightest dusting of snow. Chicago recently halted plans to privatize plowing on some neighborhood streets because bids came in too high and city leaders feared repercussions if contractors botched the job.

Black Hawk County in northeastern Iowa tried contracting out snowplowing for its parking lots for three years, but decided this fall to end the experiment.

"We just didn't feel the oversight was what we needed," says Black Hawk County supervisor Frank Magsamen. "We were at the mercy of them billing us."


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