Public works by private firms

Quick, what do Dallas, Gainesville, Jackson, Omaha, and Wichita all have in common? Most likely only an expert in municipial government could come up with the right answer. But if, by any chance, you guessed that they have all either contracted out some municipal services to private firms or, as in the case of Wichita, totally given up at least one city service - refuse collection - you would be right.

The fact that an increasing number of cities are now looking to private firms to provide basic services should not be all that surprising. Given the recession , many cities are being forced either to trim back services or to raise taxes.

In a sense, the trend toward ''privatization'' - as the process of turning services over to private firms has been defined by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation - represents a return to government practices before the reform era of the turn of this century. Until then city services, when available, were often undertaken by privately owned monopolies. Because of pricing abuses, such services eventually became municipally owned or were made quasipublic through tight regulation. But soaring costs in the intervening years, particularly from labor costs often associated with aggressive public employee unions, have compelled many communities once again to take a hard look at the old system.

The issue is more than ideological. It is really financial: How can quality public services be provided at the lowest possible cost? Each city will come up with its own answer. In the case of Wichita, for example, many firms now compete for the trash collection business, with residents paying directly for the services they choose.

Whether communities should go as far as Scottsdale, Ariz., and actually contract out fire service seems questionable, although such a practice has apparently worked well in that town. Cities certainly have a special responsibility for maintaining control over public safety, including fire and police functions.

Still, at a time when public coffers are hard pressed, cities may want to evaluate the experience of communities such as Wichita and Scottsdale. Since many state legislatures will be meeting during the next several months, lawmakers might examine whether cities have all the legal authority necessary to actually undertake such a contractual transfer of services if they decide to do so.

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