Haslam will keep taking Tennessee services private

photo Gov. Bill Haslam answers a question during a news conference in this file photo.
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE - Despite a controversy over his outsourcing of state building operations, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam says he intends to continue looking at privatizing state government operations where he believes it is practical.

"I think our job is to deliver the very best service at the lowest price, and I've said that from the very beginning," Haslam said last week, adding, "I think particularly this case with the real estate space is a great example of that."

Haslam was referring to a contract with Chicago-based real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle to manage state office space.

The contract takes effect July 1, and 126 General Services workers will lose their jobs.

A Davidson County Circuit Court judge is expected to rule today whether a lawsuit can go forward challenging the treatment of those General Services employees and workers in other departments.

A group of workers and the Tennessee State Employees Association filed the suit two weeks ago. It said the state violated its own requirement to help those affected find other state positions by taking down a website of job listings when the reduction in force was announced. At the same time, the state implemented a hiring freeze.

"I can't comment too much on that," Haslam said, citing the lawsuit.

He said he believed the website was shut down because state computers were making pay adjustments after a study comparing public employee compensation with similar jobs in the private sector.

"Our systems didn't allow us to have those adjustments ready [on the NeoGov website]" for the employees getting laid off, Haslam said. "It wasn't a deliberate effort to shut them off."

Haslam said as a result of the salary study, more than 85 percent of state workers will get more than the 1.5 percent raise scheduled to take effect July 1.

The state argued in court last week that it gave advance warning the site would be taken down and provided job counseling, training in resume writing and other aid. At the same time, state attorneys argued, Tennessee law doesn't require employees be given information about job openings elsewhere.

State employees and their representatives, meanwhile, argue that in at least some outsourcing ventures, the promised savings don't materialize.

"As far as I know, state employees were doing a good job managing the buildings," said Robert O'Connell, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association.

What employees "think we're seeing here is an execution of a certain political philosophy" of privatization wherever possible of even "appropriate" public functions, O'Connell said.

Haslam said outsourcing state functions where it makes sense is one of several strategies his administration is using to keep government costs down.

"Right now we're in a good revenue period, and the revenue's always exceeding [estimates]," he said. "That doesn't always last. When it doesn't, we're going to have to provide for that. This is a direct result of the top-to-bottom [reviews of state functions]" Haslam ordered after taking office.

The reviews have resulted in any number of cost-cutting measures and elimination of some state services.

Haslam argues the reviews don't always lead to trimmed or eliminated programs, job cuts or privatization.

"There's other things we're taking back" from private vendors, Haslam said.

"I was talking to a highway contractor the other day who's kind of mad about some things we used to let private contractors do that we're bringing back in house" at the Department of Transportation.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or asher@timesfreepress.com.

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