Haslam considers outsourcing buildings at TN colleges, prisons, - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Haslam considers outsourcing buildings at TN colleges, prisons, parks

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TN Gov. Bill Haslam. AP photo TN Gov. Bill Haslam. AP photo

NASHVILLE (AP) - Large private out-of-state vendors are touring some of Tennessee’s most beloved and visited state parks this week to gather information about their operations and potential for profit as part of the Haslam administration’s sweeping plan to privatize management and operations of virtually every state-owned facility, including state parks, prisons and college and university buildings.

Despite months of planning and working with vendors, neither Gov. Bill Haslam nor his top lieutenants have led any public discussion of what would be the most comprehensive change in the operation of state government in decades, potentially throwing thousands of state employees out of work and shifting others into jobs with private companies.

Instead, the plans first surfaced publicly with a “Request for Information for Facilities Management Outsourcing” posted Aug. 11 on a state Department of General Services’ website viewed mainly by potential state contractors. The document invites companies interested in the contracted management of a broad range of state activities to submit information, by Aug. 21, on how they would proceed. The RFI says their responses will be kept confidential.

The document specifically lists as potentially up for outsourcing “office space; higher education, including classrooms, administrative space, dormitories, etc.; hospitals; prisons; parks and recreational, including hospitality centers, hotels (inns), campground facilities, etc.; Military; etc.”

As part of that effort, a small group of major national vendors, including Aramark and Delaware North, are making site visits at several Tennessee State Parks across the state whose retail operations the Haslam administration is proposing to outsource, including inns, cabins, campgrounds, restaurants, marinas and golf courses. This week’s meetings began Monday at Montgomery Bell State Park just west of Nashville and end Friday at Paris Landing State Park in West Tennessee, according to a source with firsthand knowledge of the tours but who wasn’t allowed to speak publicly.

At each park, the vendors are given a group tour of the parks and their facilities and then meet with park managers to discuss operations, finances and employment. The initial tours are focused on 11 of the biggest state parks seen as having the potential to produce revenue: Cumberland Mountain, Davy Crockett, Fall Creek Falls, Harrison Bay, Henry Horton, Montgomery Bell, Natchez Trace, Paris Landing, Pickwick, Tims Ford, and Warrior’s Path.

Under the proposal, the parks would remain state-owned parks but private vendors would be awarded long-term leases for much of their operations.

The state has tried to privatize parts of parks’ operations before, including five “Bear Trace” golf courses designed by professional golf giant Jack Nicklaus’ company. That operation failed and three of the courses are back under Tennessee State Parks operation, one closed and one was transferred to local groups.

The state Legislature this year approved a law allowing alcoholic beverages to be sold in state parks for the first time, a move seen as making the parks more attractive to private vendors.

Meanwhile, state higher education officials say they have been assured by the administration that participation in the outsourcing effort will be optional for each campus.

The Tennessee Board of Regents administers all state universities, community colleges and colleges of applied technology outside of the University of Tennessee system. TBR Chancellor John Morgan said the TBR system “has been invited to participate in a developmental process to see what opportunities may exist to reduce costs for the operation of state facilities, including ours. The RFI is an early step in this process to identify possibilities.

“From the beginning, it has been our understanding, and our participation has been predicated on the basis that each of our institutions would have the option of utilizing a state contract for services if they believed it to be advantageous. We were recently reassured of this fact by those leading this effort. Our institutions are very diverse in terms of mission, geography, organization and current cost structure. Our facilities are varied and include academic and office space, student activity and living space, and athletic facilities. Thus, each of our institutions would need to carefully assess and analyze a business case for their particular set of circumstances prior to opting into such a contract,” Morgan said in a statement.

“As for the impact on employees, I would be very surprised and frankly, disappointed, if the expected savings, if any, achieved through a contract was primarily due to reducing the pay and benefits of the people who do the work. If that were the case, I doubt many of our institutions would choose to participate. If, however, substantial savings due to operational efficiencies could be redirected to activities that would enhance student success, then careful consideration of those opportunities would be appropriate.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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