Delay sought in sewage plant decision

Thursday, July 20, 2000

By HUGH R. MORLEY
Staff Writer

Even as it appeared ready to move ahead, the turbulent on-again, off-again process of selecting a private company to run Bergen County's $47 million-a-year sewage disposal plant ran into a potential roadblock Wednesday.

As officials at the Bergen County Utilities Authority prepared to pick the lead contender to run the operation, aides to County Executive William "Pat" Schuber asked the authority to delay the process further.

The selection process is designed to find a private operator willing to run the BCUA's Little Ferry sewage treatment plant, which employs 225 people and treats and disposes of waste water from most of Bergen County's communities, for less money than the authority now spends.

The BCUA's original choice, Operations Management International of Colorado, was vetoed in November by Schuber, who said he wanted to hire a consultant to analyze the process.

This week, though, Schuber's office said he would allow the BCUA to select the operator. And BCUA officials planned to vote today for OMI and try to negotiate a final deal.

But late Wednesday, Schuber's office urged the BCUA to hold off for another month.

Schuber, who is traveling in Europe, could not be reached for comment. A statement released by his office said he "wants to meet again with the consultant hired to evaluate all the privatization proposals" and ensure that any deal 'include careful discussion of the future of BCUA employees."

But BCUA Commissioner Joseph Tedeschi said he was inclined to proceed with the vote. "We went through a process that was pristine, accurate, and professional," he said.

At issue is who wins the right to negotiate a contract with the BCUA, which will only privatize the plant if the company can operate it more cheaply.

At the time of his veto, Schuber said his consultant would release a report on the bids by OMI and two other companies in about 90 days, his aides said. But eight months later -- with no report released -- some county officials are asking questions.

Freeholder Doug Bern, a Democrat, wondered if Schuber was trying to find some reason to halt the process and help United Water of Harrington Park, which submitted a bid, gain the contract. Schuber and the majority of the freeholders are Republicans.

"It raises a lot of suspicions," Bern said. "We've been told it's almost ready, it's almost ready. . . . There's just a whole host of strange goings on in this issue."

Bern questioned why OMI and its parent company each contributed $1,250 to the Bergen County Republican Organization in May.

"It's very curious timing," Bern said. "It appears that the vendor is trying to grease the skids, generate good will in this very delicate evaluation period."

Schuber's chief of staff, Adam Strobel, dismissed as "preposterous" Bern's suggestion that he would help United Water. The process has taken a long time because Schuber wanted to do a thorough review, Strobel said.

Other county officials also said the contributions were meaningless. They said the companies, which do work for the NorthWest Bergen County Utilities Authority, have donated to the party several times in recent years.

"It's much ado about nothing," said Henry Amoroso, the party finance chairman, who also represents OMI in negotiations with the BCUA.

The selection also came under scrutiny in May when OMI Vice President Buddy Reneau said in a letter to the BCUA that a senior executive of United Water said at an industry conference that the county would soon throw open the process again.

Around the same time, a trade newsletter reported that United Water Vice Chairman Jean-Michel Brault said the authority would seek new offers or rebid the contract.

United Water spokeswoman Terri Guess said Brault was simply "voicing his own speculations." And Strobel called the assertions "posturing."

"They had no inside information," Strobel said.

Staff Writer Hugh R. Morley's e-mail address is morley@bergen.com

Copyright 2000 Bergen Record Corp.