OMI Re-Starts Negotiations for Begen County Wastewater Facility

Friday, August 11, 2000

Staff Writer

It was on, then it was off, and now it's on again. Nine months after a Colorado contractor was rejected as a potential overseer of the county's sewer system, the Bergen County Utilities Authority on Thursday voted to resume negotiations with the company.

The decision could open the door to privatizing the sewer works. First, the BCUA will get a cost estimate from Denver-based Operations Management International. Then the agency will compare the company's numbers to what the utilities authority would spend to continue managing the plant itself. Finally, the BCUA will choose the lower of the estimates.

In voting, 7-0, to contract with the company, the board rejected proposals from United Water Resources of Harrington Park and Professional Services Group of Rhode Island.

The vote came two days after County Executive William "Pat" Schuber, who vetoed the original decision in October, said he would not stand in the way if the board once again backed the Colorado company. Although the utilities authority is an independent agency, Schuber has the right to veto agency minutes, giving him the power to overturn any decision.

After his veto, Schuber hired a New York financial company, at a cost of $35,000, to study the proposals and qualifications of the three competing bidders.

"I am satisfied," Schuber said in a prepared statement, explaining his decision not to block the selection. "I feel OMI has the financial soundness and experience I have been looking for in a private vendor."

With an annual budget of about $47 million, the authority's waste-water treatment plant pipes sewage from homes in 46 Bergen communities and treats it before disposal.

BCUA Commissioner Joseph Tedeschi said he was "deeply satisfied" that the agency's original selection of the company would be upheld.

"We were 100 percent confident that we had followed the law and we had done everything appropriate," Tedeschi said.

Asked for a copy of the $35,000 study, an aide to Schuber declined to release it, saying it could affect ongoing negotiations with the company.

But an executive summary found the BCUA process that picked the company was effective and the proposal a good one. The summary also suggested the company recognize the labor unions and maintain the salaries and benefits of any employees hired.

At least one of the authority's three unions, the Supervisors Association, was taking a wait-and-see attitude about the future of the sewer system's operation. Before seeking estimates from private contractors, the BCUA had planned to lay off 23 workers in October. On Thursday, officials said they have pared the layoffs to 14.

It's unclear what would happen to those jobs under the plan to be submitted by the company.

Eric Abrahamson, president of the Supervisors Association, which covers 29 BCUA employees, said he needed more information about the company's plan before he could determine whether it was good for the members.