Kudos to Shawnee County Commission Chairman Bob Archer for figuring out which direction the wind was blowing on the question of privatizing Shawnee County’s solid waste department.
The concept had previously been blasted during a public hearing of the county’s solid waste management committee, which had previously lain dormant for years. Commissioners have been examining costs in different departments. That’s included privatizing the Community Health Center, renegotiating with ambulance provider American Medical Response and selecting a new company to manage the Expocentre.
These decisions were likely good ones, although time will always tell. But in setting their sights on the solid waste department, commissioners unsettled some residents. Taxpayers don’t provide financial support, and the department runs a million-dollar surplus. In other words, things seem to be going well.
On Wednesday, Archer signaled his retreat. “I listen to the public, and at this point I don’t think the public’s ready for a change,” he said at the waste committee meeting. “The timing’s not right, in my view.”
Privatization is a tricky subject. We can understand why it might seem appealing to government leaders. They don’t have to directly supervise employees. They can negotiate a single cost. And they can feel more in control — one contracted firm can always be switched out for another. For years, privatization has been suggested as an easy fix for government problems or to reduce government spending.
But as Kansas has recovered from the tax experiment, and as communities take stock during a robust economy, some of those benefits seem fuzzier. We’ve seen that contractors charge more than expected. They can fall short on their promises and gamble that states or municipalities will keep working with them rather than go through the contracting process again. We’ve seen how privatized foster care and Medicaid systems have created extra difficulties for our state’s poorest and neediest residents.
That’s not to say there’s never a reason to privatize or that the arrangements can’t work out. They obviously have done so and will do so. But privatization isn’t intrinsically good, and government departments aren’t intrinsically bad — either one can be run well or poorly.
From all indications, the county solid waste department has been doing well and supporting itself. Unless unforeseen problems develop, changing doesn’t seem to make sense.
We should focus on areas where a clear opportunity to improve exists.