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

Senate panel moves to prohibit state park outsourcing

By Sam Stockard

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A Senate panel approved legislation Monday prohibiting the outsourcing of jobs at state parks less than a week after the State Building Commission renewed plans for rebuilding and privatizing the inn at Fall Creek Falls.

The measure sponsored by Sen. Sara Kyle would prevent privatizing maintenance, operation and preservation of state parks, including buildings, facilities, structures and improvements on park property. Plans call for a $22 million project to hire a contractor to demolish the Fall Creek Falls inn and build a new facility, which would be run by the new vendor.

Kyle, a Memphis Democrat, joins Sen. Lee Harris in opposing the Haslam Administration’s effort to outsource parks operations. Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Ripley Democrat, is sponsoring the House version of the bill and is set to introduce it Wednesday in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee.

“I just don’t believe we need to outsource it to a private company. I think studies show we do not save money outsourcing to private companies,” Kyle said.

The measure, which moves next to the Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee, received no discussion, a sign senators are cool to the idea of outsourcing state parks. Before Kyle could barely start her presentation, Sen. Ken Yager, an influential Republican from Kingston, called for a vote on the measure. It received unanimous approval.

“I’m very appreciative,” Kyle said. “It gives us a chance to talk about it again. It gives employees of the state of Tennessee another voice, one more day to be heard and educate those who haven’t heard that this is a real issue that could affect the economies of Tennessee.”

The Executive Committee of the State Building Commission last week approved renewal of a request for proposals to hire a vendor to oversee construction and operation of the inn at Fall Creek Falls, a technical move to re-insert its authority in the building process.

An amendment to the RFP shows the state intends to select a vendor in early May and seek State Building Commission approval May 22 before awarding a contract a few days later.

Officials with the Tennessee Department of General Services and Department of Environment and Conservation say the plan marks efforts to “protect taxpayer investments” in state parks and provide visitors with a better experience.

Opponents of the outsourcing plan don’t oppose construction of a new inn at Fall Creek Falls, but they believe state employees should be given a chance to run instead of turning it over to a private company once it’s complete.

Under the current plan, inn, cabin and golf course workers are to be displaced during the inn’s construction and will be given a chance to interview or seek positions with the private company. Legislators say they will lose their state benefits in such a transition.

Otherwise, they could find jobs within state government or receive severance packages, according to the Department of Environment and Conservation.

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