Park Service controversy over outsourcing

The Senate may resurrect a Bush plan to farm out park jobs to the private sector.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

At San Juan National Historic Site, Edwin Colon has been toiling under the Puerto Rican sun.

Talking on the phone during a break, he describes how he and a group of stone masons have been packing mortar into 2.7 miles of crumbling garrison walls erected 400 years ago by Spanish Conquistadors as a way to fortify New World trade routes.

According to his job description with the US National Park Service, Mr. Colon, generically speaking, is a maintenance man, which means he's now vulnerable to replacement.

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Under a plan crafted by the Bush administration to farm out potentially more than 400,000 federal civil-service jobs, Colon's position could soon be offered to low-bidding laborers from the private sector willing to work more cheaply.

Within the Park Service alone, he is among thousands of career employees wearing ranger uniforms whose jobs are being considered for outsourcing as part of an unprecedented push to privatize federal jobs deemed "commercial" in nature.

Wednesday, what was once a relatively obscure domestic policy issue for the Bush Administration, has now become a heated debate.

Crafted by the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) - the fiscal nerve center of government - outsourcing is central to Mr. Bush's belief that the free market can deliver public services more efficiently than the federal bureaucracy.

The plan also figures within the president's campaign pledge to shrink the size of government. But after 9/11, which resulted in thousands of new airport-security jobs being added to the federal payroll, observers say Mr. Bush's advisers have been more aggressively seeking to offset those gains through outsourcing and downsizing.

"Between Democrats and Republicans, we are already seeing evidence of office-to-office fighting over the issue of competitive outsourcing, and the debate is going to go down to the wire this fall as the government sets its budget for next year," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Washington, D.C.

Two years ago, the Park Service became a prime target for privatizing some civil- service jobs after the president's former OMB director, Mitch Daniels, referred to it "as the world's largest lawn-care service." In addition to riling agency defenders, Daniels' characterization has rankled historians, archaeologists, maintenance workers, and rangers who could be supplanted.

"While it is perfectly appropriate to seek the lowest bidder for [making] the uniforms our park employees wear or the equipment they use, seeking the lowest bidder to replace their expertise and experience is wrong," warns Congressman Nick Rahall (D) of West Virginia who is leading a largely partisan push to halt the effort.

Two weeks ago, the administration's attempt to expedite outsourcing faster was rejected by the House. During the summer, it also voted to withhold funding necessary to complete studies to identify categories of workers in dozens of different agencies.

Now the Republican-controlled Senate appears poised to resurrect the plan. Free-market proponents such as the Cato Institute are calling upon the OMB to stand its ground and carry out an attempt to streamline government that failed under the Clinton administration.

Rather than retreating from outsourcing, Chris Edwards, Cato's director of fiscal policy, says the administration ought to take outsourcing one step further by fully privatizing thousands of civil-service jobs, from Park Service rangers to air-traffic controllers. In recent decades, the Park Service already has privatized 60 percent of its former workforce by contracting out concession services such as hotel, restaurant, and gift-shop operations.

Mr. Edwards is convinced that not only does the private sector possess employees who can competently deliver services, but once taxpayers realize how much can be saved, the controversy will go away.

He blames unions for throwing up roadblocks to bringing legitimate scrutiny to jobs that are either unnecessary or held by workers who should be dismissed but who hide behind the protection of civil-service laws.

Park Service Director Fran Maniella, a booster of the plan, admitted that attempts to downsize government, based on quotas, could set back efforts her agency has made to hire more minorities.

Critics who view OMB's plan to use outsourcing as misguided point to employees such as Colon as an example of the value that an older, experienced worker can add.

At the San Juan National Historical Site, Colon's job description masks the fact that this Puerto Rican native is revered as a walking encyclopedia when it comes to 16th-century masonry, one of the defining features of the federal landmark. During the 1990s, Mr. Colon, a 21-year agency veteran, began pioneering a new method of wall repair, based on old traditions, that has saved the Park Service huge sums of money.

"In historic properties like San Juan, most people given the title 'maintenance employee' are mistitled and ought to be called 'preservation specialists' to reflect their real knowledge that is irreplaceable," says Bob Dodson, the site's assistant superintendent.

Even the average Park Service "custodian" is a person who usually has extra training, he adds. "Employees cutting the grass at national cemeteries aren't running through the rows of headstones with weed whackers to get the job done as fast and cheap as possible. Instead, they use care. Maintaining a hallowed place like that takes skill and years of experience," he adds.

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