Ed Navarro, a North Miami Beach architect, couldn’t hold back his anger at an April 3 city commission meeting. “The Romans invented plumbing over 2,000 years ago,” he thundered. “You guys are trying to make it seem that purifying water and pumping water is some amazing new invention, and we need an amazing new corporation to do it.”
“This is not a political rally,” Mayor George Vallejo interrupted.
“How can we have respect for you when you show no respect for us?” Navarro shot back. Vallejo then instructed police to usher Navarro out of the room.
By the end of the evening, the City of North Miami Beach, population 43,000, had voted 4-2 to begin negotiations with CH2M Hill, a private supplier, to transfer to it the operation of the water plant that serves nearly 200,000 residents of several South Florida cities. By May, the City finalized the deal, granting CH2M $190 million in contracts over the next 10 years. The transfer of management will force 80 union workers to reapply for their jobs. Despite vociferous opposition from residents and a brief FBI investigation into the deal, the City has plowed forward, with City Manager Ana Garcia praising the commissioners for “the courage it takes to challenge the status quo.”
Critics argue that privatization of public assets like water systems leads to job loss, a decline in service quality, and an increase in waste. Whether through acquiring ownership, assuming management duties, or financing deals with an equity stake, private companies extract a layer of profit that would otherwise be plowed into providing services. “Why would we…hand some dollars away to Wall Street or a private company?” asked Donald Cohen, executive director of In The Public Interest, an anti-privatization watchdog. “And give them control over the asset for 30, 40, 50 years?”
Privatization backers, who use the more politically palatable phrase “public-private partnerships” (or P3s), counter that these arrangements operate more efficiently, saving taxpayers money. But even if that were true, privatization contracts can lock cities and states into inflexible long-term deals, straining local budgets and eating away at democratic control.
The Trump administration has offered a lifeline to P3 enthusiasts, from family consigliere Jared Kushner’s privatization-friendly White House Office of American Innovation to a proposed infrastructure program that would facilitate toll roads and P3 deals nationwide. He branded the first week of June “Infrastructure Week,” both an attempt to deflect from cascading White House crises and a signal to financiers that the barn doors were flinging open. If Trump is successful, more cities like North Miami Beach will put public assets up for sale.