On the Property and Environmental Research Center website, Warren Meyer explains why the US Forest Service is cutting ties with private organizations that have been running federally owned facilities for less than the Forest Service is able to do … despite the private company’s proven higher levels of service:
Private concessionaires pay all operations costs out of the entrance fees paid by the public — and without further taxpayer subsidies. In addition, the concessionaire pays the public agency a concession fee. The resulting savings to taxpayers can be quite compelling. In a recent PERC case study, I showed how a parks agency had to supplement every dollar in visitor fees with an equal amount of tax dollars to keep a park open. By privatizing the park’s operations, the need for tax revenues could be eliminated. And in fact, the park could be turned into a money maker for the agency.
While this may resonate with the public, it’s a hard sell to the agencies themselves. The National Park Service uses concessionaires to provide some visitor services, but it has not considered private operation of entire parks. Even the Forest Service — which does allow some private park management — often seems eager to go back to running the parks themselves.
No private company would behave like this. So why does the government? Over the years, I have observed three possible explanations:
1. Government employees have incentives that go beyond “public service.” For most agency managers, their pay and prestige and future job prospects are tied to the size of their agency’s headcount and budget. Privatization savings that look like a boon to taxpayers may look like a demotion to agency managers.
2. People who are skeptical of private enterprise and more confident in government-led solutions tend to self-select for government jobs. Even in the Forest Service, concessionaires frequently experience outright hostility from the agency’s rank and file. “It’s wrong to make a profit on public lands” is one common statement.
3. Government accounting is not set up to make these sorts of decisions well. Few agencies have reports that tell them whether an individual park’s revenues are covering its full operational costs. Costs can be spread over multiple budgets, making it seem as though public park operation is less expensive than it really is.
To overcome these obstacles, we’ve learned that progress generally has to start above the agency. Some sort of legislative push is necessary. And we try to find ways to pitch our solutions as a way for agencies to free up money to address other problems, such as fixing rotting infrastructure.