The proposed privatization of Salt Lake County's asphalt operations is being greeted with enthusiasm by private industry and a taxpayer group, but with caution by county officials.

If the county does get out of the asphalt business, it would save more than $360,000 a year, improve the quality of its materials and become more efficient, according to a performance audit of the Public Works Department."The savings would greatly surpass that number, in our opinion," said Richard Thorn, executive manager of the Associated General Contractors of America, Utah Chapter.

Thorn said the auditor's figures don't include the substantial costs of transporting asphalt from the county's Welby pit, at 5400 West and U-111, to work sites. The county may be spending twice as much as it should on asphalt operations, he said.

Val Staker of Staker Paving & Construction said most cities in the valley obtain asphalt from private sources and have it delivered and applied to roadways for less than what it costs the county just to make the material.

And Howard Stephenson, executive director of the Utah Taxpayers Association, said that while some public works functions should remain within the public sector, asphalt production is not one of them. The county should follow Salt Lake City's lead and let the private sector do the job, he said.

Submitted by County Auditor Craig B. Sorensen, the performance audit estimated that privatization would save the county $1.4 million over a four-year period, which is roughly equal to the county's entire asphalt costs in 1991.

The county could make additional money by selling or leasing the Welby pit and the production equipment, the audit added.

Auditors also evaluated highway maintenance crew productivity, concluding that private industry has something to offer in that area as well: A lesson in efficiency.

The audit noted that county highway crews are required to clock in and out at the Midvale shops, resulting in "unproductive travel time" to and from work sites. While conceding that other government highway departments employ similar techniques, the audit said there is a better way.

In the private sector, crews report directly to job sites and leave from those sites when their shifts are done. If the county followed suit, the productive time of its crews would increase by at least two hours per week, the audit said.

Auditors also found that county crews were taking breaks at the same time, shutting production down in the interim. By staggering breaks, another two hours of productivity could be added per week. And the auditors recommended the county adopt a four-day, 10-hour work schedule to reduce start-up and shut-down time.

"Implementation of these three recommendations would increase productive time by approximately 15 percent."

The audit also concluded that:

- Highway signs could be purchased from private sources at a savings of at least $15,000 each years.

- Controls over warehouse supplies, tools and equipment are inadequate.

- The public works cost accounting system is good.

While urging commissioners to adopt the audit's major recommendations, Thorn said he was "dismayed at the perceived defensiveness" of public works officials, who disagreed with many of its findings and recommendations.

For example, on the issue of having crews report to work sites instead of the shops, officials responded, "We are not going to implement this recommendation." They gave the same response on the proposed change in the work schedule and questioned the auditor's findings relating to quality control and privatization.

Commissioner Randy Horiuchi, whose portfolio includes public works, said the department's supervisors had been instructed to cooperate fully with auditors. "But there may be another side to this," he added, saying the department would conduct its own study of the asphalt operations.

Thorn and Stephenson expressed a hope that the study wouldn't result in the audit being "swept under the rug" and forgotten. Public Works Director Lonnie Johnson assured them that commissioners would receive his department's assessment before the end of the year.