NASHVILLE — Tennessee public university staffers and United Campus Workers union representatives on Tuesday aired grievances about the Haslam administration's efforts to expand privatization of state building management and services.
The group delivered a letter to Terry Cowles, director of Haslam's Customer Focused Government group, voicing complaints about transparency and asking for an opportunity for public comment. They got to deliver the letter and message personally to Cowles, according to video supplied by the United Campus Workers.
The encounter was civil as a group of some 15 workers and union officials engaged with Cowles when he returned from a meeting. The group also aired concerns to Michelle Martin, Cowles' director of communications.
Cowles and his team are exploring a dramatic expansion of existing outsourcing of facilities management, operations and leasing. It now includes about 10 percent of all state-owned facilities and has resulted in the state's closure of the Chattanooga State Office Building and nearby James R. Mapp Building and the loss of facilities management and service workers' jobs there.
Haslam, a Republican, and Cowles are now looking at expanding outsourcing to nearly all of the remaining 90 percent of state facilities.
It's a vast area that includes higher education, state prisons, parks, state hospitals, National Guard armories and more. The administration says it could save the state some $36 million, mostly in higher education.
Higher education officials have challenged that.
Union officials contend some 10,000 workers, all told, could be impacted and are fearful of losing their jobs or status as government workers, along with reductions in pay and benefits.
The group went to the Tennessee Tower state office building in Nashville, where about half got through security while others were held back. They asked for a formal mechanism for public comment, as well as greater transparency.
Scott Martindale, a facilities services employee at Middle Tennessee State University, questioned why critics' telephone calls and emails have gone unanswered.
Another group member questioned why the bid process for the contract is underway when a promised independent verification of the $36 million that administration officials say can be saved in year two hasn't been done yet.
Haslam has said the new initiative won't result in anyone losing their jobs or seeing pay or benefits reduced, unlike what happened in the first phase of his building privatization drive. More than 100 people lost their jobs in that process.
One worker told Cowles that "everyone thinks it's impossible to achieve the savings" estimated while protecting employees.
Cowles calmly disputed that, saying, "Everyone doesn't think it's impossible to achieve. We're not going to stop the process [at this point]. We can always stop once the audit is completed and we get the results if it's not satisfactory or conducive to moving forward. There's no definitive point until we are basically signing a contract."
Challenged by a worker on what happens if the audit eventually finds the plan amounts to "a waste of money," Cowles replied, "Obviously we don't think that's going to be the result. But if that outcome exists, we can deal with it at that point."
With regard to their complaints that the administration's communications have been confusing, Cowles said "we haven't said anything confusing. We've been very clear about the fact that we're going to protect the jobs of the citizens. And we've said that and that's what we're striving to do. We're just at the beginning of the process right now."
When group members earlier pressed one of their gripes — that their phone calls and emails are being ignored — Martin said a flood of comments on various issues constantly comes to her and the governor's constituent services operation.
In response to their request that some type of more formal public comment process be implemented, Cowles replied "We'll take that under advisement, but I think that's a reasonable request."
The Haslam administration last summer issued a request for information from potential contractors in areas covering nearly all state-owned property. But when it came to state parks, would-be vendors balked, saying most were badly in need of repair and needed millions of dollars in work.
The University of Tennessee and Tennessee Board of Regents' systems have questioned estimated cost savings in their area, saying they already run a tight operation. Because of that, Haslam has said he would hire an outside consultant to evaluate savings and estimates.
Last month, the state began a contractor selection process. The Commercial Appeal of Memphis and Knoxville News Sentinel reported Tuesday the deadline for potential vendors to submit a proposal is Thursday.
Earlier this month, Cowles' office issued a request for qualifications for the actual building outsourcing contract. Would-be vendors have to demonstrate they are up to the task. It calls for a contract to be in place in 2017.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-255-0550 or follow via Twitter @AndySher1.