Decision to privatize water plant operations has issues

Published 9:56 am Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The decision Monday by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to privatize the city’s water treatment plant could in the long run prove to be a smart move, but there remain lingering issues.

One is the reason for the move, which speaks to a problem Mayor George Flaggs Jr. has pointed out several times since taking office — the lack of a qualified employee to move in and take the place of former water plant director Pat McGuffie, who left to go to the Culkin Water District.

As the mayor pointed out, the lack of a certified operator, or even one sufficiently trained to be certified, was the catalyst for the move.

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“We had no other choice,” the mayor said. “We don’t have anybody within a 50-mile radius who applied for that job.”

The lack of trained employees who can step up and fill a vacancy has been a problem for the city, not just at the water treatment plant, but at other city departments, and must be addressed.

The other issue is financial.

How much does the city stand to save by privatizing plant operations? The fiscal 2016 budget for the water treatment plant is $5.072 million, which covers salaries, operation and maintenance costs plus money for upgrades to the plant’s system.

How much the city pays the company that gets the contract to run the plant won’t be known until the bids are opened, possibly in March, and a contract is signed. And regardless who gets the contract, the city will still own the building and equipment, and still be responsible for repairs, and the 47-year-old plant and its equipment are showing their age.

There are the plant’s eight employees, who may or may not be kept on by the company hired to operate it. One would hope some or all of the employees will be kept because of their knowledge of the plant and its operation, but that is not a given.

Flaggs said the employees will have top priority for other city jobs, offering them some potential relief.

Privatization is becoming a common practice for cities as they look for ways to continue to provide services and save money, and the board cannot be faulted for looking for savings. The problem here is the move was done out of desperation and still has some unknowns.