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State Rep. JoAnne Favors, right, participates in a news conference on Sept. 15 in Chattanooga.
We just keep hearing about a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

After 24 years of work as a custodian at UTC, Sonya Davis says she's worried about losing her job if Gov. Bill Haslam proceeds with a plan to outsource building management and operations at public colleges, state parks, prisons and hospitals.

"I wanted you to know: We're not just custodians," Davis said Tuesday as she described bonding with students and faculty alike, even offering a friendly shoulder and advice to stressed-out undergraduates. "We contribute to the students, the faculty. We're not just here to clean up."

Her comments came as she and other University of Tennessee at Chattanooga workers, ranging from maintenance workers to facilities management engineers, described their commitment both to their jobs and the campus community during a fact-finding session hosted at the university by three Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga.

About 60 UTC workers, students, community supporters and United Campus Workers officials showed up for the session, the second campus stop of a statewide tour by Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville.

"In some respects, the administration has rushed to judgment," Harris said.

"We just keep hearing about a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," Favors added.

Since news leaked of his administration's look at additional outsourcing, Haslam has maintained officials remain in an exploratory stage and no final decision has been made. But he's not ruled it out either.

"Are there things we're always going to look at that say is the state doing this now and are we the best people to be doing that?" the Republican governor recently asked reporters. "Sure, we're always going to do that. And that's something we should be doing."

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Chip Verner, UTC's manager of facilities services, pointed out the operational costs at UTC and other public colleges and universities are already beating a key industry standard developed by Whitestone Research, with which the Haslam administration consulted.

"The governor says he wants to save money, but the data clearly shows it won't," he said.

Clemmons agreed with that assessment, noting, "What we hear is there's no place else left to cut."

Haslam has pointed to what he calls the success of his initial venture into facility management outsourcing that began with nearly 30 state buildings operated by the Department of General Services. That resulted in the state giving two state-owned office buildings in Chattanooga to UTC and relocating workers to leased space. While the state says they were too expensive to repair, UTC plans to make use of at least one of them.

Some two-thirds of state workers involved in facilities management under the Department of General Services lost their jobs when Chicago-based real estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle took over. Haslam says the state saved $12.9 million over a two-year period, but critics note the governor's administration and Jones Lang LaSalle touted even higher savings. Critics also question whether the cost comparisons are valid.

"I don't believe there are hard and fast numbers," said Randy Stamps, a former Republican state representative and current head of government affairs for the Tennessee State Employees Association, who also participated in the hearing.

One higher education worker scoffed at General Services leaders, calling them "the ones who proved they couldn't run their own facilities."

Critics contend for-profit companies will cut wages and benefits for workers that they retain. But Haslam maintains Jones Lang LaSalle has slashed costs through greater efficiencies and national purchasing power, not through reducing pay and benefits.

Noting no Republican legislators were at Tuesday's session, David Tuggle, a carpenter, asked what the chances are of outsourcing "becoming a partisan issue."

"It's not a partisan issue. It's a jobs issue," Clemmons said.

Karly Safer, a former UT-Knoxville worker now with United Campus Workers, said a number of Republican lawmakers are just as concerned, especially in rural areas where state parks, prisons and other state facilities are often the communities' largest employers.

Noting that Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey last week dismissed employees concerned about new outsourcing as "squeaky wheels," Safer urged workers to "reach out to them [GOP lawmakers]."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.

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