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Want to save the state from disaster?

POSTED June 19, 2012 8:34 p.m.

Want to see an end to California's perennial budget crisis?
Then go fishing. Actually you can also go waterskiing, sailing, swimming or just enjoy the summer sun.
California sealed deals on bids from private firms to run six state parks this week. Three of them - Turlock Lake State Recreation Area, Brannan Island State Recreation Area near Rio Vista, and Woodson Bridge State Recreation Area near Chico - will be operated by American Land & Leisure Co.
The Utah-based firm for the next five years will take over management of the three state parks. That encompasses operating all of the concessions, visitors' services, and security plus assuming legal liabilities. They will also pay the state a percentage of the revenue they collect. Meanwhile, California will still own the parks.
It is an unprecedented move for a state to partner with a private firm to manage a public- owned recreation area.
California has been forced to slash its parks budget by 20 percent or $23 million during the past three years. The end result of the last budget cut in 2011 meant 70 of the state's 278 state parks had to close by July 1. Now only 18 face being locked up. Forty-six are being operated by a combination of municipal governments and non-profits or being kept open through private donations. Six are being saved by the first-of-its-kind private-public partnership.
Skeptics don't believe it can succeed. They believe the private-public model is doomed because the private sector needs to make a profit. They believe it is a given that the government runs certain things and services because they can't be provided at an affordable level in any other way.
They point to Brannan Island SRA. In 2010-11, it cost California $740,000 to run the park. It is roughly double what was collected in users' fees and concessions.
Budget cuts last year forced Brannan Island to be closed Tuesday through Thursday.
So how can American Land & Leisure Co. maintain services - or even improve them - and still make a profit?
To find the answer you need look no further than Riverside County.
That is where for the past 15 years the privately held Library Systems & Services Inc. has been operating the county's 35-branch library system. It is the largest client of many local government agencies the Maryland-based firm has across the United States.
The library system in that county has been able to survive, thrive, and expand during the LSSI partnership. The firm zeroed in on efficiencies and stepped up customer service.
The biggest financial plus, though, was LSSI hiring its own employees. Most once worked for the county. While wages were compatible what wasn't was the benefits, especially health care and retirement packages. With employee costs being 85 percent of a typical government agency's budget, it is the only realistic place to look for savings.
The biggest savings came from paring back retirement benefits. Obviously, county employees who become private sector employees aren't thrilled with it but the first goal of government should be to provide services not employment opportunities.
The retirement packages are comparable to most of the private sector in California.
LSSI made a pitch a few years back to run the Stockton-San Joaquin Library System.
Compared to the state, county governments are downright miserly in their retirement packages for rank-and-file workers who aren't involved in front-line public safety jobs or management.
It is quite possible that a private firm could close the gap between operating costs and revenue at the six state parks.
If they do, it would be like a bird dog pointing at a mallard.
But instead of a mallard the obvious target for those hunting for a solution to get California's state finances back on an even keel is the generous and bloated retirement system for state employees.
And what is the state going to do with the displaced state employees at the six parks? Transfer them to other parks to assure that the state's savings will be minimal at best.
What else would you expect from Sacramento where $16 billion annual deficits have become the norm?

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.

 

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