What CH city service will be privatized next?

In 2015, the city of Cleveland Heights moved to privatize its water department, but backed off in the face of community opposition. Despite that strong negative response, last summer the city privatized its building department, turning it over to SAFEbuilt, a Colorado-based company now owned by the private equity firm Riverside.

As state governments have squeezed funding to cities in recent years, the trend toward privatizing municipal services has accelerated. With the Republican sweep to control all branches of the federal government added to that party’s control of 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships, pressure to privatize can only be expected to intensify.

In our July column, “Take Back the CH Building Department,” we outlined some specific concerns about privatizing a municipal service that has been a net revenue generator for the city for many decades. There may be time to reverse this: Cleveland Heights can withdraw from its three-year contract with SAFEbuilt on July 1, 2017, giving 120 days notice.

While City Manager Tanisha Briley asked city council to approve that contract because she was unable to recruit qualified personnel to staff the department in-house, University Heights Mayor Susan Infeld recently hired a new building commissioner and maintains a three-inspector staff. How is it that a private company like SAFEbuilt can hire certified inspectors, and neighboring cities can keep their own building departments, while Cleveland Heights is unable to accomplish these tasks?

We have also begun to wonder: What city service might be next in line for privatization?

So we asked. Mayor Cheryl Stephens’ response that she had “no idea” was pretty much echoed by city council members Mary Dunbar, Michael Ungar and Jason Stein. Kahlil Seren and Melissa Yasinow did not return our calls, and Carol Roe’s voicemail was full.

As stated to us, council members’ views on privatization differ somewhat, but not radically. Mary Dunbar said, “I am not opposed, but I think we need to look very carefully because we sometimes may not understand the unintended consequences.”

Michael Ungar commented, “I generally lean against it. If the city manager and staff state compelling reasons why the CH taxpayers should privatize a city service, I would have to consider it, but not for anything that directly affects public health and safety. I would never support privatization of our safety forces.” He added, “The profit motive is completely misaligned with the interests of citizens.” We agree.

Given that misalignment, why is privatization occurring so frequently? In The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy, authors Si Kahn and Elizabeth Minnich wrote: “The great divide and looming struggle of the twenty-first century is between two cultures . . . the private profit culture and the public good culture.

By definition, for-profit companies are accountable only to their shareholders. Their highest priority is to maximize profits, and profits can only be extracted from the pockets of residents who become their customers. Privatization does not save money for cities or taxpayers, does not necessarily deliver better services, and obstructs direct public accountability.

The ideology and practice of privatization are not spread on the wind. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was founded in 1973 to bring corporate influence to bear on state policy. It has promoted an anti-regulation, anti-tax, anti-union and pro-privatization agenda by providing model legislation and introducing state legislators to corporate representatives who both influence their thinking and buy their votes through campaign contributions.

In 2014, ALEC established the American City County Exchange (ACCE), an affiliate devoted to advancing its agenda at local levels. City and county officials pay annual dues of $50, while corporate membership fees range from $5,000 to $15,000. According to Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, “ACCE is just another effort to rig our democracy in favor of corporate special interests.”

Steve Arnold, mayor of Fitchburg, Wis., attended an ACCE meeting in December. He reported: “After two years of operation, ACCE has not strayed from the ALEC model of producing model bills by and for corporate sponsors who either intend to prey on the public without regulation or retribution, or who hope to privatize the ongoing services which are democratically and cost-effectively delivered by cities, towns, counties, and school boards. . . . ALEC and ACCE are also evolving policies and structures to better insulate their corporate funders from the outrage of those they harm.”

Having run out of space and time, we close with these questions: Will Cleveland Heights bring the building department back in-house? And, secondly, which city function might be targeted for privatization next?

Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef

Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who grew up in Cleveland Heights and has lived here as an adult for over 30 years. Contact them at heightsdemocracy@gmail.com.

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Volume 10, Issue 2, Posted 6:07 PM, 01.31.2017