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VOL. 41 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 24, 2017

Haslam criticized for renewing Fall Creek Falls outsourcing plan

By Sam Stockard

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State Sen. Lee Harris is criticizing Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision to renew an outsourcing plan for development and operations at Fall Creek Falls State Park, calling it a move to bolster profits for a private company.

Less than three weeks after an indefinite postponement, the Haslam Administration revived a request for proposals from vendors for constructing and operating a $22 million inn at the park in rural Spencer in Van Buren and Bledsoe counties.

Harris, a Memphis Democrat, and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, point out the new RFP reflects only changes for architects and engineers as it received approval from the State Building Commission’s Executive Committee. No steps were taken to address the concerns of employees who could lose jobs or state benefits when a private company obtains the contract, they note.

“This is devastating news for state employees and Tennesseans who want to keep our cherished public assets from landing in the laps of profit-driven companies,” Harris says. “Hardly anyone outside the governor’s bubbles supports this plan.”

Harris, who has traveled to Fall Creek Falls and University of Tennessee campuses with Clemmons to gauge public reaction to the governor’s outsourcing plans, says the contract’s schedule, an “apparent rush,” also raises questions.

An amended RFP shows intends open bids May 11 and seek approval by the State Building Commission May 22 before signing a contract four days later.

In addition, Harris says Tennessee Department of General Services Commissioner Bob Oglesby is set to hold a May meeting in the Tennessee Tower with officials from other states who are considering outsourcing jobs.

“The stated timeline doesn’t allow for meaningful public input from employees and other stakeholders, and meeting a conference deadline is no reason to rush this process,” Harris says.

The Department of General Services is handling RFPs for the Fall Creek Falls project in addition a facility services management contract, which could be tapped by departments across Tennessee, including universities. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees state parks, also has a role in the privatization.

“We have a responsibility to protect taxpayer investments in our state parks and provide our visitors with a positive experience. Decades of insufficient maintenance funding has resulted in dilapidated facilities and disappointed customers,” said TDEC Commissioner Bob Martineau.

The State Building Commission’s decision to bring back the RFP clarifies its position in the process, instead of putting more authority in the hands of the vendor.

It also moves the state a step closer to stopping the trend of “run-to-fail,” Martineau said.

The state of Tennessee will continue to own the property. But a vendor will tear down the inn and construct a new one, in addition to operating the facility, a conference center and restaurants, cabins and a golf course there.

Inn employees, as well as cabin and golf course workers, who are expected to be displaced are being guaranteed an interview with the new vendor once the inn is rebuilt or must submit a form showing their intent to shift jobs. The proposal isn’t expected to affect ranger, ranger support and maintenance positions not linked to hospitality, according to TDEC.

The Department of Environment and Conservation says it’s working with affected employees to help them find jobs within the department or state government. But severance packages could be offered as well.

“We have not made this decision lightly, but we know it is the right thing to do,” said TDEC Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill. “The new inn will increase occupancy rates and is estimated to provide a 90 percent increase in sales and hotel/motel tax revenues by its third year in operation, which would naturally mean more jobs and a healthier long-term employment outlook for the community.”

Legislators such as Harris and Clemmons, as well as the Tennessee State Employees Association, don’t oppose reconstruction of the inn, but they believe state employees should be given the opportunity to run it. The two lawmakers heard overwhelming opposition to the proposal when they visited Fall Creek Falls and Montgomery Bell State Park.

“To a person, these hard-working Tennesseans expressed real fear for their livelihoods and their community’s well-being, and they were outraged about the governor’s lack of transparency and rush to privatize state property at all costs,” Clemmons said.

As state employees make a case that privatization will hurt their communities and economies, Clemmons says, “It appears that Haslam’s plan does nothing but create a revenue stream for his administration’s friends in the private sector. One can only assume this, because they’ve provided no other verifiable excuse.”

Tennessee’s state parks are a strong economic driver generating more than $725 million in direct expenditures by visitors, according to a TDEC statement citing a 2009 University of Tennessee study. Every dollar generates another $1.11 of economic activity, and every dollar spent from the state’s general fund created $17 in direct expenditures and more than $37 of combined expenditures, the study states.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.