City council mulls privatizing parks

By Observer Upload April 04, 2013 01:15 pm

by Bill Rautenstrauch/For The Observer

Privatization of parks maintenance services is probably not a good idea, but outsourcing operations at Veterans Memorial Pool might be, according to a report presented to the 
La Grande City Council Monday night city by City Manager Robert Strope.

Strope, members of the city council and of the city’s parks and recreation advisory commission met in a work session to talk about alternatives for management of the city’s parks. Strope had been directed to review the parks department to determine whether the current management methods are the most effective ones.

As part of that review, Strope looked into the possibility of contracting out parks maintenance and aquatics operations. His report recommended against privatizing parks maintenance, but said contracting pool services is an idea worth looking into.

The recommendation against outsourcing of parks maintenance didn’t sit well with Clint Troyer, who has been following the issue closely. Troyer, owner of Grassmaster in La Grande, won a parks maintenance contract in Baker City several years ago and has hoped for a long time to do the same in La Grande.

A concern expressed by several at the meeting was the level and quality of services delivered by a private company. Troyer said Tuesday his company can deliver those services efficiently.

“They’re saying only city employees can maintain the parks to a proper level, but I disagree with that,” Troyer said Tuesday.

Strope said that it’s not possible to determine cost savings from parks maintenance privatization until a scope of work and a request for proposals is developed. He said he believes cost-related impacts are the only potential advantage of privatization of parks maintenance.

Troyer, on the other hand, has definite ideas of savings for the city. He said he would like to have a contract similar to the one in Baker City, where his employees not only maintain grounds but do janitorial work, staff events and help with reservations.

He said he sees an arrangement in La Grande where his employees take over all parks maintenance, essentially replacing city staff. Savings, he said, would be substantial.

Among disadvantages of privatizing parks maintenance, Strope said the move would necessitate creation of a new position with contract oversight, loss of direct control over staff, and a “likely” loss in levels of service.

Strope also said privatization would require talks with the union that represents city employees. Those employees would have to be given the chance to compete and negotiate.

“If you’re looking at privatizing, you have to give the collective bargaining group the opportunity to negotiate with you,” Strope said.

While Strope recommended against privatization of parks maintenance, he thinks the city should look more closely at changes for the aquatics division, the single most expensive operation in the parks department.

Strope said the parks and recreation advisory commission should explore alternatives including privatization or a partnership with an organization such as the YMCA, outsourced operations by a third party, or formation of an aquatics special district.

Beyond the privatization issue, Strope presented several alternatives for parks department organizational structure.

One alternative is to maintain the current organizational configuration, in which a separate parks department is dedicated to parks, recreation, urban forestry and aquatics.

Another alternative would eliminate the parks director position and revert to a previous configuration in which a parks superintendent and an aquatics supervisor report directly to the director of public works.

A third model would eliminate the parks director position and separate urban forestry, parks maintenance, recreation and aquatics, with supervisors reporting to the public works director.

Also suggested was a “city manager” model that would eliminate the parks director position, and replace it with a parks superintendent and an aquatics supervisor who report to the city manager.

Still another configuration, the so-called “parks model,” would eliminate the public works director position and have public works superintendents report directly to the parks director.

Strope said he believes that any option other than “status quo” will result in service reduction, the impact the city council most wants to avoid.