Proposed Fall Creek Falls outsourcing process back on track with tighter oversight

Proposed Fall Creek Falls outsourcing process back on track with tighter oversight

March 24th, 2017 by Andy Sher in Politics State

Protesters with the Tennessee State Employees Association and other demonstrators gather outside of the Fall Creek Falls Inn to protest its privatization on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2016, in Spencer, Tenn.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

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NASHVILLE — The State Building Commission will now have firmer control over building-related aspects of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's plans for outsourcing Fall Creek Falls State Park's operations under amended rules for bidders approved on Thursday.

But Treasurer David Lillard, a commission member, made it clear during the commission's executive subcommittee meeting that the panel's oversight jurisdiction does not extend to the request for proposals' other major area: The outsourcing of hospitality functions at the popular Upper Cumberland Plateau park in Van Buren and Bledsoe counties.

Statutorily, those are "not within the Building Commission's purview," Lillard said, noting the excluded list includes current workers' continued employment, pay and benefits in operational areas ranging from the park inn, restaurant and convention center to the golf course and gift shop.

But the SBC will retain strict oversight within provisions of the request for proposals over the park's chosen vendor, who will be called upon to spend $22 million in taxpayer money to tear down the existing inn and rebuild it.

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Members unanimously approved the tighter oversight in efforts to resolve a revolt by professional Tennessee-based architects and engineers.

With Haslam's well-known penchant for outsourcing — the administration sought a bidder two years ago to take over hospitality operations at Fall Creek Falls and parks with similar amenities — critics see the revised request for proposals as the template for renewed administration efforts.

Haslam's proposed budget calls for new capital expenditures at several other parks.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, an outsourcing critic, said the amended request for proposals provides "more legislative oversight" over the park's demolition and construction.

While that's a "good thing," Clemmons said, "I would consider it nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig, because outsourcing and privatizing our state parks are absolutely unacceptable. There has been no justifiable, verifiable excuse for privatizing our state parks."

The Building Commission includes the state treasurer, secretary of state and comptroller, all of whom are elected by the General Assembly. The House and Senate speaker, elected by members of their respective chambers, also serve.

The lone executive branch member is Finance Commissioner Larry Martin. The House and Senate speakers are not on the executive subcommittee.

During the panel's meeting, John Hull, a General Services Department deputy commissioner, told the panel the amendment "would clarify the State Building Commission's oversight role in this project and make other improvements to the [request for proposals]."

Details of the changes won't be public until the new request for proposals is posted on the state's website for potential vendors. But during questioning of Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials by Comptroller Justin Wilson, some aspects were revealed.

For example, the state architect, chosen by the Building Commission, will have to approve vendors' expenditures during the development phase. That's been one of the concerns.

Wilson noted that wasn't in the original request for proposals. But Karen Stevenson, TDEC's assistant general counsel, said it was in the pro forma contract accompanying the RFP. She said new language provides "clarification," with it reiterated throughout the document and contract to avoid "any confusion."

"I don't want any confusion about it," said Wilson, who was absent from the State Building Commission's December meeting in which the request for proposals was originally approved.

The slate of proposals evaluated through Phase I and Phase II of the request for proposals will come before the executive subcommittee. State Building Commission members would make the final decisions on vendors with which the administration will enter into negotiations.

"This would have their sign-off on that before we started those detailed negotiations," TDEC Commissioner Bob Martineau later said.

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


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