Lack Of Bathroom Soap Leaves Some Lawmakers Wringing Their Hands About Outsourcing

Aug 29, 2017
Originally published on August 28, 2017 4:24 am

Job security. Worker benefits. Service to taxpayers.

These are some issues state lawmakers have been weighing as they review how well outsourcing government functions has worked.

But there's a more mundane item that's also been surprisingly high on the list of legislators' concerns.

Soap.

It may be seen by many as a necessity after nature calls. But in Legislative Plaza, the main office building for the Tennessee General Assembly, the satisfying sound of soap squirting from a dispenser hasn't been heard often enough for many lawmakers.

"If anyone cares to go into the second-floor men's restroom, right up there, you'll see that another legislator took it upon themselves to bring soap," state Rep. Tilman Goins, R-Morristown, said at a hearing last week on outsourcing.

And as he — like a lot of lawmakers, lobbyists, staffers and other frequent visitors — will tell you, soap isn't the only bathroom necessity that's been in short supply.

"Now I'm kind of OCD. I'm the type of person that washes their hands and then grabs the napkin to open the door, and I found myself many times standing there, figuring out how to open the door because there were no napkins."

Many claim the problems began soon after a private firm took over janitorial services from the state four years ago. Whether true or not, their perception that corners are being cut has soured some legislators' view of outsourcing in general — just as big state agencies like the parks system and the University of Tennessee are considering it.

Goins has sponsored a measure, House Bill 944, that would require the state to issue more information to the public about outsourced contracts. It's seen as a potential step toward giving the state legislature more oversight of privatization.

Many of the questions surrounding outsourcing are more substantive than understocked bathrooms. State workers fear they'll lose their jobs or see their benefits cut, for instance.

But time and again, critics like state Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, turn to examples closer to hand.

"I don't believe my office was vacuumed. I don't think it's been vacuumed in a year," he said at that same hearing.

The Office of Customer Focused Government, which administers the janitorial contract, says there's a solution: The legislature could put in more work orders. In an email, spokesman David Roberson pointed to a policy decision by the Office of Legislative Administration that only it could request additional services.

"While we do not believe this produces the best level of service for those facilities or their occupants, we respect the authority of the Office of Legislative Administration to make that choice," Roberson said.

Officials also say the customer surveys they provide the legislature aren't being returned.

The question is whether lawmakers instead vent their frustration in other ways — perhaps by reining in outsourcing statewide.

Copyright 2017 Nashville Public Radio. To see more, visit Nashville Public Radio.