Commentary: Is privatizing public services a trustworthy choice for Flint?

By Paul Rozycki

During a recent East Village Crime Watch meeting,  a major issue was the possibility of hiring D.M. Burr to provide private security for our neighborhood, in addition to the Flint Police Department, Mott Community College, and the East Village Neighborhood Watch. As Kim Owens reported in her recent EVM article, the company gave a presentation on the nature of their services at the meeting. Signing up with D.M. Burr may or may not be a good idea, but the mere suggestion that we should hire a private police force underscores a debate that has infused state and local (and national) government for the last 30 years or more.

The idea that some traditional governmental services should be delivered by private, for profit organizations had its most recent growth in the early Reagan administration, though there are examples in earlier American history and others that go back to medieval and ancient times. The debate over what government should do and shouldn’t do is as old as government itself, and the choices can be as complex as any modern government.

Advantages of privatization:

In general the strongest advocates for privatizing government services have come from the conservative side who feel that the “government that governs best is the government that governs least.” Those who favor having private companies provide traditional government services offer several arguments to support their claims.

  • Lower costs and lower taxes: Privatizing public service allows market competition to lower the costs as it would in the traditional free market business world, giving taxpayers more for their money. This is particularly appealing in a time when state and local governments are hard pressed to raise enough revenue to provide the most basic services.
  • Greater efficiency: Some argue that private organizations can react more quickly to meet changing conditions and can be more flexible than a large government bureaucracy.
  • Lack of political influence: Where there is a tradition of political corruption and influence, bringing in a non-political outside firm can be a way of avoiding bribery and corruption.
  • Specialized skills: In cases where specialized skills are needed, contracting with a private company may be the only way a government can have access to specialized skills and technologies.

Disadvantages of privatization:

Those who oppose having non-governmental organizations take over traditional activities also offer reasons why governments should avoid privatization and why existing government organizations are better suited to provide basic services to its citizens.

  • Decline in the quality of services: Since the private corporation is geared to make a profit for its stockholders it’s likely that the quality of service will decline. Unlike the products of a corporation government programs can’t always be measured on a profit and loss chart.
  • Distortion of services: Some government services are not designed to be profit-making and doing so will distort those services. A common example is the increased use of private companies to run prisons and jails. They make more money if the cells are full. A criminal justice system should be concerned with justice, not filling as many jail cells as possible.
  • Corruption: Corruption is just as possible in a privatized system, when well connected politicians can direct contracts to their friends and supporters.
  • Breaking public unions: Very often the major saving that arise from privatizing comes from moving employees out of unions (and union wages) to lower wages.

To be sure, the devil is in the details. Well written and well enforced contracts for some services can be an advantage to the public and taxpayers. And in many cases privatization has worked out well, but all too often shifting government duties to the private sector saved little money, delivered poor services, and hurt the very people they were supposed to help.

In Flint, recent events can offer support for both sides of the argument. On one hand, the Rizzo/Republic trash conflict and the scandal surrounding it, certainly raises doubts about the wisdom of privatization. Yet, on the other hand, the Flint’s water crisis was triggered by governmental employees, and some of those who played the biggest role in exposing it were outside of the traditional governmental organizations that deal with water.

What services should be privatized?

The list of governmental activities that have been turned over to private corporations or businesses is long and complex. Some activities are rarely a government function, such as light and power companies. (Though Holland Michigan is considering developing a city sponsored broadband service.) Others are more diverse, where sometimes they are governmentally run, other times not, such as garbage collection.

Recently, with the growth of charter schools, many private companies have entered the K-12 education field. Many specialized services have been privatized in schools; buses, school lunches, medical testing, janitorial services, and sometimes substitute teaching. Some state and local governments have privatized highways and parking meters. Some cities have privatized the operation and maintenance of their parks. New York’s Central Park is one example. Some states have privatized public airports, animal shelters, lotteries, parking garages, emergency call centers and child welfare programs.

The list is long and complex and there are many private/public partnerships that combine both government and private interests. On the national level many non-combat functions in the military have been privatized, such as supplying food, transportation, and embassy security. Recently there was a proposal to have a private army take over the fighting in Afghanistan. So far, that idea seems to have been discarded.

On the state and local level, certainly one of the most troubling privatization areas has been in the area of criminal justice. Michigan has had several major scandals with private companies providing food in prisons, leading to a series of lawsuits.

When it comes to police protection, privatization raised particular concerns. Only fully authorized police officers have the full power to arrest citizens. (There is a limited power where a ‘citizen’s arrest’ can take place, typically only when a major crime takes place in the presence of the person making the arrest. There are also significant legal risks for a citizen in those circumstances.)

Should East Court/East Village hire private security?

We all know that private police or security personnel are used in many circumstances. Shopping malls have their own ‘mall cops’ as do some stores, schools, and factories. But as discussed in the recent College Cultural Neighborhood Crime Watch meeting (see Kim Owen’s EMV article for more detail) should the East Court/East Village neighborhood consider hiring D.M. Burr to provide additional security for us? Their service would cost about $500 a year for each home that chose to participate. As the number of participants increased the hours of protection provided would increase. But D.M. Burr is not a police agency and does not have the power to arrest that a police officer does. (Only the limited “citizen’s arrest.”) Currently the Woodcroft neighborhood in the Miller Road area uses Burr for added security and they have seen a decrease in crime.

As the issue is discussed there are several questions we need to answer for ourselves.

  • Will the services be worth and extra $500 per house, when we have the city police, Mott police and our Crime Watch?
  • Would the hours that Burr patrolled be enough to make a difference?
  • Would that same amount of money (in taxes) be better spent to hire more Flint officers?
  • Would Mott Community College be willing to increase their patrols with a similar amount of money?
  • Are the Woodcroft residents satisfied with the service they have received? Could we expect the same kind of service?
  • Would enough of us sign up to make it worthwhile?

The proposed contract with D.M. Burr is available for examination. It’s a six page document that lays out the responsibilities of the company, the costs to residents, and the nature of the security protection it offers the College and Cultural Neighborhood. We should examine it both in terms of what it includes and what it doesn’t. It’s an important decision for our neighborhood and deserves a critical review.

EVM political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at



Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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