Panel looks to amend Fall Creek Falls outsourcing plan

Panel looks to amend Fall Creek Falls outsourcing plan

March 20th, 2017 by Andy Sher in Politics State

An older guest cabin is seen ahead of recently renovated guest cabins at Fall Creek Falls State Park on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in Spencer, Tenn. A plan to demolish the park's existing inn and replace it with a new facility that is privately run has apparently been renewed, and the process would take more than 2 years.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

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NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam's administration hopes to get its controversial outsourcing proposal for Fall Creek Falls State Park back on track this week.

A committee of the State Building Commission is set to hear changes to the proposal sparked by political fireworks shot off by influential architects and engineers and alarmed state employees.

When the State Building Commission on Dec. 8 unanimously approved the original request for proposals, which called for issuing a single contract to build a new inn and operate the park's hospitality services, no public questions were asked by members.

But state workers already had fretted about losing jobs and benefits under a private operator. After the vote, architects and engineers charged the RFP marked a dramatic departure from the commission's oversight over the selection of designers, engineers and builders.

Professionals said the process has produced well-designed, long-lasting buildings or renovations involving billions of taxpayer dollars over decades, free of scandal.

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The RFP calls for giving the chosen vendor $22 million in taxpayer funds to hire architects, engineers and construction companies to tear down the existing inn and design and build a new one.

As Haslam's fellow Republicans in the General Assembly became concerned and began applying heat on building commission members, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation abruptly postponed its March 2 deadline for responses.

The purpose was to revise the RFP after getting a clear message to do so. Changes are expected to address architects and engineers' concerns only, with the State Building Commission's responsibility limited to facilities and leasing issues.

"I think they're going to go back through the Building Commission process, which is what we wanted," Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said earlier this month. He got a seat on the commission in January when he was elected speaker.

"They'll have to have the plan approved there, and then the building commission will also have to approve the design."

According to the meeting agenda for the commission's executive subcommittee, the General Services Department will present an amendment to be heard Thursday that "will clarify the SBC's oversight role in the project and make other improvements to the RFP and proposed contract."

Efforts to obtain full details on changes in the proposed RFP by the Times Free Press were unsuccessful Friday.

Eric Ward, a TDEC spokesman, said in an email that "we legally cannot release or discuss information regarding the content of the amendment until it is presented publicly."

"But," Ward added, "I can say we are eager to move the project forward — a project that will ultimately provide responsible, long-term stewardship of taxpayer investments in the park and help sustain it as a rural economic engine."

The 26,0000-acre park, considered the "crown jewel" of the state park system, is located in rural Van Buren and Bledsoe counties on the Upper Cumberland Plateau near Spencer, Tenn.

Fall Creek Falls' inn and convention center includes a restaurant and gift shop. The eventual vendor would operate those as well as the park's cabins and golf course.

Administration officials have sought to reassure state workers, downplaying the possibility of large layoffs in a remote community and saying those who do lose jobs can be offered positions elsewhere or become eligible for buyouts.

Total benefits offered by the vendor could be no less than what the state currently offered, the administration says.

Finance Commissioner Larry Martin this month defended the administration's plan to outsource facilities management for parks, higher education and other areas.

He said vendors can save money not so much with fewer workers but through economies of scale that large multistate companies can achieve in areas such as purchasing supplies.

But workers — there are about 48 full-time hospitality workers plus part-time and seasonal workers at Fall Creek Falls — aren't buying it.

Randy Stamps, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association, said Friday he recognizes the upcoming RFP revision doesn't appear to involve administration efforts to outsource hospitality services.

"But at the same time it's a re-examination, I hope, of the project and the worthiness of it," Stamps said.

"Of course, we're hoping some members of the building commission will have a different perspective," he said.

"What they wanted to do was just turn this $22 million over to whatever vendor they chose . and I think there could be some issues with that."

Stamps remains concerned Haslam likely will seek to outsource management in other state parks.

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In 2015, Haslam's effort to privatize hospitality operations at 11 parks in one fell swoop failed to attract private vendors because so many park facilities were in run-down condition.

So last year, Haslam put $22 million for Fall Creek Falls in the budget, with TDEC officials fashioning the RFP.

In the coming year's budget, the governor is recommending $44.8 million for major renovations to facilities at three other state parks.

A TDEC spokesman last month said "at this time, there are no active plans in place" to outsource hospitality functions at the other parks.

Meanwhile, Thursday's executive subcommittee agenda holds another controversial proposal to lease the Mountain View Youth Development Center in Dandridge, Tenn., to a private operator.

The Department of Children's Services proposes a lease with G4S Secure Solutions Inc., doing business as G4S Youth Services LLC, for the 144-bed youth facility in Jefferson County.

"They're trying to privatize the Youth Development Center," Stamps said.

DCS workers are in an uproar, as are nearby homeowners, the Dandridge town council and at least some members of the Jefferson County Commission, according to the Standard Banner, a local newspaper, and WATE-TV.

The state has had problems with the facility, including a riot just last year by teenage boys.

One of the state's apparent objectives is to nab more federal funds by housing at least some of the teens not in "hardware secure" facilities but in less-restrictive, staff-secured facilities, thus making federal education funding available for them, the Standard Banner reported.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on twitter @AndySher1.