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Elevator industry questions motive for privatization


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- The task of inspecting elevators in Florida could be turned over to private companies under a plan moving through the Legislature with the support of Gov. Jeb Bush.

The effort to transfer most elevator inspections from a state agency to private companies has some in Florida's elevator industry worrying about public safety and suggesting that the plan is poisoned with politics.

The president of the Elevator Association of Florida has issued a statement suggesting the plan was designed to benefit private elevator inspectors, including a St. Louis company owned in part by William H.T. "Bucky" Bush. He is the uncle of the Florida governor and a fundraiser for Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"Mr. William "Bucky' Bush has indicated that he is aware of the bill and would place an office in the state of Florida once this bill passes," Theodore Baranowski, president of the Elevator Association of Florida, wrote in a statement circulated to state lawmakers this week. "This now seems to put the safety of persons riding on elevators under the political whims of heavy donors to certain parties."

Reached late Monday, "Bucky" Bush said the charges are ridiculously false. "That whole line of thinking is very annoying and very insulting," he said.

"The first time I heard that Florida was privatizing was about a week and a half ago when I got a call from (an elevator) maintenance company down there," he said. Bush did say his company, National Elevator Inspection Services, of which he owns 12.5 percent, likely would go after business in Florida if the bill passes.

"They inspect elevators all over the country," he said.

Florida corporate records show that National Elevator Inspection Services, with William Bush named as vice president, has been registered to do business in Florida since 1992.

Gov. Jeb Bush's communications director, Justin Sayfie, said Baranowski's allegation "is so absurd it's not even worth responding to."

Bush's proposed budget for next year would save just under $700,000 by privatizing inspections, part of an overall effort by the GOP governor to turn over some government tasks to private companies. His spokesman noted that transferring inspection responsibilities away from the state is a trend that "didn't just start in the Bush administration."

"The trend is that public safety can be protected without having the state actually do the inspections," Sayfie said.

Officials at the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation say that private companies -- often the company that services the elevator -- already conduct 87 percent of all elevator inspections. The new plan, according to agency spokesman Judd Bagley, would simply close the gap.

But Bob Schoen, a retired supervisor in the state Bureau of Elevator Safety, said the bill would remove the most critical inspection the state's 18 inspectors conduct: a biennial check of each of Florida's roughly 40,000 elevators.

"The minute you start bringing in private companies to do the final inspection you'll find there's just not the control" that exists under state inspectors, Schoen said. "Privatization stinks, period."

Tim Mowrey, the owner of a large independent elevator company in Marianna, said the privatization plan, part of a larger plan to overhaul the state building code, is being rushed through the legislative process without enough public comment. It is scheduled to be considered by the full Senate today.

"It seems to me if they were going to pass a bill they would get with the Elevator Association of Florida, but we haven't heard anything."

Baranowski said giving private companies control over inspection takes away a neutral inspector "with no interest other than public safety." He and other industry leaders say such neutrality leads to stricter safety standards and, in the the event that an accident should happen and lead to litigation, a reliable witness that safety standards had been met.

"I think the whole industry would like to stay as it is," Mowrey said. "Why mess with anything when it's safe?"

According to Elevator World, an industry publication, 37,677 violations were found in Florida elevators during the 1998-1999 fiscal year, with 427 accidents reported.

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