NASHVILLE — Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery says in a new legal opinion that the state's proposed privatization of operations at Fall Creek Falls State Park rests on sound legal ground.
In response to a question about whether department officials violated a statute that governs the Department of Conservation and Environment's outsourcing of services, Slatery said that statute "is not applicable to the proposed transaction."
Rather, Slatery said, another statute "provides specific and separate authority for the Tennessee Department of General Services to enter into an agreement for the private redevelopment, construction, and operation of the facilities at Fall Creek Falls State Park."
Because General Services is involved, Slatery said, that authorizes the outsourcing proposal.
Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, who opposes the outsourcing effort, sought the legal opinion.
Last year, Environment and Conservation officials issued a request for proposals seeking would-be concessionaires to run the park inn, restaurant, gift shop, cabins and golf course.
The contract would have provided the concessionaire $22 million in state funds to tear down the existing inn and build a new one.
But that plan was abruptly postponed in recent days by the Haslam administration.
While officials aren't specifying what the problem is, saying only that they will issue a new request for proposals, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said last week the action came amid questions over the proper role of the State Building Commission, which oversees building projects in the construction process.
At issue are objections by Tennessee-based architects and engineers concerned about how whatever company treats them, acknowledged McNally, who became a member of the Building Commission in January when he was elected Senate speaker.
Tennessee State Employees Association Executive Director Randy Stamps, whose group opposes park outsourcing over fears about employees' jobs, sought to downplay Slatery's legal opinion.
"I think what it points out is that they did not follow strictly existing laws," said Stamps, an attorney himself. "The attorney general's opinion had to point out a new statutory construction, to pick the law that they [the administration] wanted to work to make this legal."
"Right now the RFP is postponed," Stamps said, but he said he hopes for more changes from the State Building Commission. "We feel like with the facts that have stepped forward, there's a real chance they're going to step back. At least that's what we hope."
Stamps said state employees back more park funding as well as improvements to the inn. But he said the inn should be renovated with only partial closure.
The administration defends the outsourcing effort, noting that years of neglect by various administrations have left Fall Creek Falls State Park inn in dowdy shape.
Officials say that with the number of visitors falling off, the inn and other amenities aren't fully supporting the park's operations. Using a company with expertise in running hospitality operations in the private sector will result in a more efficient and profitable operation to the benefit of visitors as well as the state, the administration argues.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.
This story was updated March 7 at 11:10 p.m. with more information.