After years of managing its city pools – successfully, I might add – Wooster City Council and the city administration opted out of that duty this year, looking to save some money by turning those operations over to Georgia-based USA Pools.
I generally am a fan of self-management and local control, so that was something that caught my eye. After the past two months I am quite sure that Mayor Bob Breneman and city council will agree that the $14,000 savings they envisioned by having an outsider come in and run the pool system was merely a $14,000 Summer Blockbuster in headaches.
Anyone following the story knows there have been ongoing issues with USA Pools this summer. The main stumbling block has been a failure to pay the lifeguards contracted to safeguard our children’s lives when they were using the pool, an area where USA Pools seemingly stumbled every step of the way this summer. Lifeguards have complained about non- or late payments and even when payment was made, one lifeguard told me his check bounced and it cost him a $50 bad-check fee after he wrote a check out of his account.
If nothing else, there is a civics lesson for those young lifeguards, many of whom are still in high school or just graduated, to take out of this adult fiasco: All government is not bad and all privatization is not good.
First, the government. I will defer to the claim that the city of Wooster did due diligence when researching USA Pools prior to the summer pool season. Frankly, it is hard to imagine other cities haven’t faced issues given the issues that ensued once USA Pools took over management of Wooster’s Freedlander, Christmas Run and Knights’ Field pools, just as it is hard to imagine these issues this summer were of Wooster’s own making and not on USA Pools’ resume.
That said, when lifeguards and their families raised concerns over missed pay and not being credited for hours worked, the administration held USA Pools’ feet to the fire. With but five weeks into the summer pool season, it would have been easy to wash its hands of the problems and look to next year and chalk this up as a learning experience.
Instead, Breneman and his administration demanded the contract be upheld – particularly of making full restitution and ensuring pools having full lifeguard staffing, which was a point of contention between the city and USA Pools as well. Finally, USA Pools chose to terminate the contract with Wooster July 20 and return the pools to local control.
Now to privatization: Why is it that the low bid means there will also be competent, quality service or goods?
As a nation we have wrapped our minds around the concept that cheap means quality. Anyone past the age of 50 will remember a time when cheap overseas products, particularly from Japan, meant exactly that – they were horribly cheap, the first to be bought and the first to break. We seem to have lost the mind-set that cheap still often means low quality for whatever reason – poor construction, poor materials, poor workmanship or whatever cheapness there was built into the product. We complain, of course, when it doesn’t stand the test of time, but like Pavlov’s dog, we still pant for the low price and too often see that as the sole driving force in making our purchase.
It’s not like the $144,000-plus contract Wooster offered to USA Pools was chump-change. Perhaps it’s just my nature, but I am not sure I would want to turn a local product over to a company in Georgia and rely on phone calls and emails to monitor the situation.
It’s one thing to purchase a specialty vehicle, mower, chemicals or another hard good from a company hours away. The pools, though, are a human product. There are issues that can potentially arise on a daily basis and the only way they can be resolved easily is with face time. When one resides in Georgia, emails or phone calls can easily be ignored. If this had happened last year when the city of Wooster was managing the pools as it has for all these years, all the mayor or a council person would have needed to do is drive a few blocks south of city hall to confront the issue face-to-face.
Now it’s back to the old normal and local control. For the final weeks of the summer season, control returns to Wooster’s Parks and Recreation Department to hire, fire and manage our local pools. From here, We, the People, will have to decide what we want. If we continue to opt for cheap, my guess is we will get exactly what we deserve.
Published: July 26, 2012