The best news of the snowy week in Cottonwood Heights was that the people who run the Salt Lake County Public Works Department didn't take their firing personally.
The city of Cottonwood Heights recently dropped out of the county's snow removal service and this winter rolled out a private contractor, a Colorado-based company called Terracare, to handle that and other street-related services. But when Terracare's fleet Tuesday was clearly not up to the season's first major snowfall, leaving cars sliding off the major thoroughfares and residents thoroughly disgusted by the slow response, Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore heard all about it.
By Friday, the county's public works department had agreed to pick up the slack with its own fleet of snowplows and trucks, both for the snow that was already on the streets and the snow that was expected to fall over the weekend.
Privatization of municipal services is something that may or may not work. But the larger question here is not public vs. private so much as centralized vs. balkanized.
Cullimore had no complaints about how the county handled snow removal in his town. The idea was just a hope, so far apparently unrealized, that by taking the responsibility onto itself the city would have more flexibility and, perhaps, save money.
But snow removal is one of those functions that can clearly benefit from the kind of economy of scale offered by either a large government agency or a consortium of smaller jurisdictions, either of which should be able to do a better job of buying and maintaining fleets of expensive machines and quickly moving them to spots where they are most needed.
A large private concern such as Terracare might provide some economies of scale for such things as management and purchasing. But not for quickly moving snowplows from, say, Centennial, Colo., to Cottonwood Heights, Utah.
The same can hold true for such public services as police and fire protection. Those, along with public works, trash collection and other functions, have been partially unified here and there throughout Salt Lake County. So far, all concerns about efficiency and value seem to argue for continued, even expanded, unification. The Cottonwood Heights snow removal experience clearly does the same.
Cullimore said that the city might be able to get out of its $1.4 million annual contract with Terracare if it is determined that it just cannot do the job. The jury is still out on that question.
But not on the matter of whether the county could handle the job. We already know that it can.