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Working It Out Together

Public/private partnerships and the Memphis city pension plan

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It is probably inevitable that in an age of lowered expectations and diminished revenues, the concept and scope of government services should both undergo some attrition. We see this happening at all levels of government, from local to federal — from the call to outsource sanitation services and prisons to the ongoing curtailment of postal deliveries and the demand in some quarters that private enterprise take over entirely the job of delivering letters and packages. FedEx, our own home-bred success story, is often touted as the likely agent for this conversion, though we imagine the folks who run UPS down in Atlanta might put up something of an argument about that.

Well, maybe so, maybe no. We seem to recall that FedEx some years ago opted to join forces with the United States Postal Service rather than attempt to replace it altogether. And even in the days when there was some verbal sniping back and forth of the we-can-do-it-better variety between the two huge delivery services, we recall that FedEx targeted its deliveries not according to any homegrown mathematical coding but via the zip codes already established by the Postal Service.

In other words, to take this example singularly, what seems to work out best is some version of what goes by the unsexy but accurate name of "public-private partnership." As we understand the agreement being hammered out, even as we write, between the Memphis city administration, the city council, and the AFSCME on a long-overdue benefits package for the city's sanitation workers, the give-and-take between public and private considerations seems to be front and center. And, perhaps not coincidentally, the once-maligned concept of "managed competition" seems to have gained a real foothold.

George Little, chief of staff for the Wharton administration, certainly generated some attention and raised eyebrows last week when he first announced to the Memphis Kiwanis Club, rather than to the council, what the administration's plans were regarding the imminent overhaul of the city pension system. Perhaps his (or Mayor A C Wharton's) choice of audience was dictated by a perceived need to vet the administration proposals — to convert from "defined benefits" to "defined contributions"— before a private group rather than a public body. In reality, of course, the Kiwanis Club, like the Rotary Club, a friendly rival, or like any service club, for that matter, is a compendium of the public and private spheres.

The unspoken motto of the times is "We're all in this together." And the very plan Little presented — and which is now due for months of argument and examination by the council — attempts, by leaning to the 401(k) concept, to privatize to some degree, at least, what has up until now been a wholly public obligation.

It is what it is. Financial exigencies as much as philosphical shifts have brought us to where we are today. We can practice denial, or we can face facts and do our best to bring about some hybrid that does the job for everybody.

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