Monday, July 02, 2007

Outsourcing is creative but risky budget idea


In the search for ways to cut their budget to meet state-mandated levels, Clearwater officials are considering outsourcing the operation of city recreation centers to nonprofit organizations.It's a creative idea, but one fraught with potential pitfalls. The city cannot afford to rush into this idea.

Outsourcing government services can save money. It also can turn out to be more costly in the long run. And all kinds of other issues can arise from the loss of government oversight and lack of accountability.

There are many examples right here in the Tampa Bay area of the potential problems of outsourcing to either for-profit or nonprofit groups. Among them are Pinellas County's difficulties with the WorkNet jobs program after the task was outsourced to Lockheed Martin and the state's outsourcing of care for Pinellas foster children to the Sarasota Family YMCA, now in the news because a child went missing for months.

The big complex, with its Olympic-sized indoor pool, was envisioned by its partners - Clearwater for Youth, the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens and the city - as a place where North Pinellas residents could enjoy private health-club-style amenities at a reasonable price, and where nonschool youth sports teams and retarded citizens could enjoy programs and play space.

The operator, the Long Center Foundation, thought it could do all of that successfully for less money than the government. It could not. The fees for users were raised beyond what many could afford, local governments were asked for ever-larger subsidies, and use of the facility plummeted. There were also revelations about poor management practices and inadequate supervision of the staff.

The city government, like all local governments in Florida, is having to resize its budget to meet the mandates of the Legislature's property tax reduction package. Parks and recreation services are not essential like police and fire services, and they do not pay for themselves, so they face big cuts.

Clearwater officials reasoned that because recreation centers cost so much to operate annually - $800, 000 a year for the North Greenwood Recreation and Aquatic Center, $500, 000 for the Countryside Recreation Center, for example - they could make big whacks in the bottom line if they could find some group to take over the centers entirely. Officials figured the city wouldn't have to contribute any money and could also require that the nonprofit charge the same fees that other centers charge, thereby preserving affordable recreation services for residents.

Council member Jon Doran was concerned about maintenance, which he feared would be the first thing cut if the nonprofit began to struggle for funds. Then, just as at the Long Center, the city might have to reclaim a much-degraded city facility that taxpayers originally had funded and had expected to be maintained.

Indeed, there may be better ways than outsourcing the entire operation of the city's outstanding recreation centers. Some of those ideas surfaced during the meeting: raising user fees; increasing the fees that nonresidents pay for use of city facilities; asking the county and other city governments to pick up more of Clearwater's cost of serving nonresidents; reducing the number of programs offered; entirely eliminating services to nonresidents.