UK's plan to privatize housing has promise

Sheila Brothers, left, and Hollie Swanson checked out the mattress on a dorm bed in Holmes Hall during the UK Board of Trustees tour of campus housing in October.
Sheila Brothers, left, and Hollie Swanson checked out the mattress on a dorm bed in Holmes Hall during the UK Board of Trustees tour of campus housing in October.

Robert Moore's Dec. 26 commentary presents a very pessimistic view of the University of Kentucky's announced effort to privatize its student housing. While he correctly cites some examples in which privatization has been problematic — prisons are a good example — some of his assertions are without merit.

A good example is his implication that private industry can't be trusted to manage UK student housing, that somehow greed will force companies to cut corners and deprive students of a proper-quality living experience.

Allow me to cite a personal example of how this process can truly benefit a government community.

During my military career, I was privileged to command Fort Myer in Virginia and Fort McNair in the District of Columbia, from 1998 to 2001. During this period, the Army undertook the Residential Community Initiative to privatize family housing. While the historic nature of Fort Myer's and Fort McNair's housing precluded us from participating in the initial conversion, I had the opportunity to watch the efforts at nearby Fort Belvoir in Virginia and Fort Meade in Maryland.

Contractors wanting to bid on each location surveyed all existing government-owned housing. They were also provided with data indicating whether current inventory satisfied requirements and any projected changes in demographics that might affect that demand in the future. The contractors then came back with bids based on a requirement to renovate older housing where it was cost-effective, demolish unusable properties and build enough new housing to satisfy demand.

After the project was completed, the contractor became responsible for leasing and maintaining the housing. The only rent to be paid by the service members occupying the housing would be their government-provided housing allowance — an amount based on rank and local cost-of-living previously used to allow the troops to find adequate housing off-post when on-post housing was unavailable.

You can drive on virtually any Army post in the United States today and find this type of housing. It is attractive, modern and energy-efficient. In addition to my own service, I also grew up in the Army, so my perspective on Army family housing goes back as far as the 1950s. I can say without equivocation that the privatized housing soldiers and their families occupy today is far superior to anything that my family ever lived in over a span of 50 years.

And, to my knowledge, the various companies around the country that have won these contracts are all performing at or above contractually required standards.

Moore also mentions a $1.2 million efficiency study that UK President Eli Capilouto has initiated. We undertook a similar effort during my tenure at Fort Myer using what is called the A-76 process. The basic philosophy is to accomplish three things: 1. Identify all activities performed by government personnel as either commercial or inherently governmental. 2. Perform inherently governmental activities with government personnel. 3. Use a streamlined or standard competition to determine whether government personnel should perform a commercial activity.

This process requires the government entity (in our case the Army garrison) to perform an internal efficiency study and, from that study, create a Most Efficient Organization. This organization becomes the government competitor in an open bidding process for the various functions performed by the garrison: public works, transportation, logistics, administration, etc. In our case, with the exception of a small-business set-aside for one minor function, the leaner organization actually won the competition over private contractors.

So, while it meant the transfer or elimination of some jobs, we were able to save employment opportunities for the bulk of the federal civilian work force while also significantly reducing our operating costs.

So my experience would lead me to recommend that Capilouto not only proceed with his student-housing-privatization initiative, but also work with the legislature to explore the possibility of leveraging the efficiency study to perform an A-76-type competition at UK.

I have great respect for dedicated government employees, but I also agree with Moore's comment about "administrative bloat" contributing to the rising cost of higher education in the United States. Rather than trash the private sector, I would urge that we harness its entrepreneurial and innovative talents to both improve the college experience and bring down the cost of higher education for students and their families.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader