DETROIT—What logic and economics couldn't do, Mother Nature did. She dumped two feet of snow on the Motor City in early January, forcing the mayor and city council to seek help from the private sector.

With just 59 snow plows and an official policy of not clearing snow from residential streets, a nearly paralyzed Detroit had no other choice. Putting aside a longstanding resistance to outsourcing, city officials spent at least $600,000 during the weekend of January 16-17 to hire 26 private contractors with 221 pieces of snow removal equipment to begin digging residents out from the worst snowfall in years. Volunteers by the hundreds pitched in as well.

More than 180,000 students in the Detroit public schools missed at least a week of school while 1,800 miles of city streets lay buried in snow. Many elderly residents couldn't get out of their homes for days. Mail delivery was severely disrupted. According to Comerica Bank economist William Wilson, losses to city businesses due to the snow amounted to as much as $10 million in the first three days. When former privatization opponents on the city council began calling for privatization, Mayor Dennis Archer responded, "I'm glad to hear that . . . council is willing to embrace out-sourcing." On January 22, the mayor announced that the city will scrap its official policy of not clearing residential streets after blizzards.

A snow emergency is not the only thing pushing a reluctant city bureaucracy to privatize. High costs and poor service by city government monopolies are also forcing Detroit to consider the contracting option. So is the successful track record of many other major American cities which have privatized services over the objections of public employee unions. In late November 1998, for the first time in the history of the city, Detroit officials announced they were considering the privatization of the city's lighting system. According to the November 24, 1998 Detroit News, companies have been asked "to submit cost-cutting and efficiency ideasincluding the buying or leasing of the city's lighting system" by February 23.