Private Sector Can Help Kansas City Manage Its Public Infrastructure, Likely for Less
The $2.5 billion settlement to improve the Kansas City sewer system has put the city well past the question of whether something needs to be done with its infrastructure assets. Right now, private companies are willing to pay for the right to manage the city’s property, and long-term savings result when the private sector operates public services more efficiently. Partnering with the private sector — either in the form of up-front payments for asset management, or cost savings from greater operational efficiencies — could help Kansas City meet its financial obligations, both now and in the future.
In 1984, Oklahoma City contracted out the management of its wastewater treatment facilities to a private utility company, Veolia Water. At the time of the contract, Oklahoma City spent $14 million per year on its system. Seventeen years later, in 2001, Veolia operated an improved system for only $11 million per year. These numbers have not been adjusted for inflation, making the savings even more impressive. Veolia still operates the Oklahoma City wastewater system today, after further contract renewals.
I provide this example not to encourage you to buy stock in Veolia or move to Oklahoma City, but to showcase the potential effectiveness of partnering with the private sector in public infrastructure operations, management, and delivery. A city council committee has approved a resolution for Kansas City officials to study the possibilities offered to residents and taxpayers from private sector competition for public infrastructure programs. The full council is scheduled to consider the proposal soon.
This resolution is limited in its reach. The proposal simply calls for the city to study the expected effects of contracting out the management of certain assets. There is no plan or intention to sell off and fully privatize city assets. Instead, the study could consider a range of options, such as private companies that pay the city for the right to operate city parking garages, or a private engineering firm contracting to operate water or wastewater facilities. One local example of the benefits of these ideas involves recent successful changes to the Kansas City animal shelter, although that particular effort moved further toward full privatization than this proposal does.
Successful examples of the private provision of public services can be found throughout Missouri. They include instances of outsourcing, contracting, and private ownership. Private companies successfully operate the nation’s only private, commercial airport in Branson; manage the pharmacy services of Saint Louis County’s Department of Health; provide electricity, gas, and water throughout Missouri; and manage trash collection in communities throughout the state. Around the country, private companies efficiently operate public highways, libraries, jails, and much more.
Not every example would be appropriate for Kansas City, but a study could help determine where private partnerships would benefit the city. Mayor Mark Funkhouser deserves credit for bringing these issues to the forefront, and the people of Kansas City will benefit if they get the serious study they deserve.
David Stokes is a policy analyst for the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based think tank.