Privatization's false promise

Parks should take a cue from prisons

June 30, 2010 

Here we go again. Another gubernatorial administration is falling for the old privatization con game, the one that offers comparable public services — maybe even better — at lower costs. This time, the plan is to put all 18 state park golf courses and food services at seven resort park lodges in the hands of private vendors.

Common sense argues that the promise of privatization rarely, if ever, can be fulfilled. If common sense doesn't persuade you, Kentucky's experience with private prisons should.

The state recently moved all female inmates from the privately run Otter Creek Correctional Complex to the state-run Western Kentucky Correction Complex due to allegations of prisoners entering inappropriate relationships with staff and being sexually abused by staff.

Obviously, the state Department of Corrections places more trust in its own employees than it does in the private guards at Otter Creek.

And that gets to the heart of the privatization con game — the fact that there are a limited number of ways a for-profit private company can run a prison, a golf course or a resort lodge restaurant at lower cost than a government that doesn't have to turn a profit.

It can cut services, which can be counterproductive, by driving away customers. It can use a smaller staff, which results in the same cut in services that drives customers away. Or it can use workers who are willing to accept low pay and few if any benefits.

"You get what you pay for" didn't become an adage because it constantly has been proven wrong. In private prisons, it apparently means you get guards who are so unprofessional they can't keep their hands and other body parts off female inmates.

In lodge restaurants and on golf courses, we expect low pay and few if any benefits would attract staffs who exhibit a similar lack of pride in their work, not to mention being subject to rapid turnover.

In the restaurants, that might show up in the quality of the food or the cleanliness of the facility.

On the golf courses, it's likely to be seen in the level of course maintenance.

In both instances, the bottom line is a counterproductive cut in services, not so much in quantity but in quality, that leaves customers unsatisfied and reluctant to repeat the experience.

We know one motivating factor for the Beshear administration's embrace of privatization is a belief that state law would allow private vendors to serve alcoholic beverages at park restaurants, and possibly on golf courses, in "wet" areas of the state, which the parks cannot do now.

Four of the seven resort parks picked for privatization of food services would qualify.

This desire to punch a few holes in the prohibition that applies to state parks is understandable. The resort parks and state park golf courses will never reach their full tourism and economic potential until visitors can enjoy a glass of wine with their dinner or a beer on the 19th hole.

But that is no justification for falling for the privatization con.

The state would be better served if Gov. Steve Beshear did whatever he could to win approval for the legislation House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark has been pushing for several years — a bill that would authorize the sale of alcoholic beverages by the drink at state parks in wet areas, without the need of turning them over to private vendors.

Pass that legislation, and we suspect it wouldn't be long before most, if not all, of Kentucky's resort parks and state park golf courses would find themselves in wet territory.

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