County wants to outsource more services

Mesa County commissioners, particularly Janet Rowland and Craig Meis, occasionally speak of their desire to see the county run more like a business.

The board now is seeing to it that the private sector has a greater chance to run some aspects of the county.

County leaders are boosting efforts to outsource certain county services or give local businesses and nonprofit organizations more opportunities to bid on work traditionally performed by county employees. They portray the move as an attempt to save taxpayers money, find efficiencies in services and prompt employees to re-examine the way they go about their jobs.

“I personally believe this is the most responsible thing a government can be doing,” County Administrator Chantal Unfug said. “We always have to be looking at better ways of doing things, access to specialized knowledge, ways to reduce costs.”

Local governments almost always bid out road construction and other public infrastructure projects to the private sector. But commissioners say they believe there are many other instances in which businesses can offer the same quality of work for less money and at the same or higher level of efficiency than the government.

They are looking at several services for potential outsourcing, including information technology, human resources, payroll and landscape maintenance.

Commissioner Janet Rowland said she believes eight to 12 county services could go out to bid in the private sector in the next year.

“This is not about staff not doing an adequate job or staff costing us more than they should,” she said. “We think our staff are doing a great job. This is an opportunity to see if there are other ways to do things more efficiently and cost-effectively.”

Rowland and Meis said they identified outsourcing as a goal in 2006 when the county shifted its budgeting process from one that started with the previous year’s budget and added or subtracted a percentage based on future plans to one that starts at zero and required employees to consider departmental goals and justify spending. But implementing outsourcing proved to be a slow process.

Colorado Counties Inc. Executive Director Chip Taylor said he knows of a few counties that are examining services and functions they might be able to outsource to private industry.

“With everyone’s assessed valuation down, I think everybody is looking at ways to save money,” he said.

Commissioners here, though, say they aren’t inviting the public sector to bid on county work because of tough budget times. They say they’re doing it because it makes sense.

“It’s not that we’re pushing outsourcing per se, but we want to make sure we’re getting the best bang for our buck for the services we’re providing, regardless of whether that comes from the public sector or the private sector,” Meis said.

Rowland said she likes the idea of creating competition in government, contending it leads businesses to drive down their prices and improve their services. Unfug said the process requires government to become introspective.

“Setting up this process really forces us to hold up the mirror to look at what we do and how we’re doing. It forces departments to pull things apart,” she said.

Rowland argues that any job losses in the county resulting from businesses outbidding county departments for work could be counterbalanced by the creation of additional jobs in the private sector. She also pointed out that ex-employees could start their own businesses and contract to provide the same type of work they performed as a county employee.

While agreeing that local governments should always be searching for opportunities to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively, Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said the county needs to proceed with outsourcing judiciously.

“I’m not interested in just putting everything out there for the sake of doing it,” he said. “We want to be very careful and strategic about this. We don’t want to risk diminishing the quality of services or having it backfire and costing us more in the long run.”


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