BCUA Con Ops contract with OMI stalled...again
Organized labor main barrier to progress

Wednesday, March 14, 2001

The furor over the proposed privatization of Bergen County's sewage disposal system has fueled two resignations.

A Bergen County Utilities Authority commissioner who backed the effort, Juan Dominguez, has resigned, saying the process has stalled over political and employee special interest agendas.

The temporary manager of the sewage division of the Utilities Authority, Eric Anderson, has also stepped down, but will remain at the plant, according to a BCUA memo that said his move was due to tensions over privatization. He could not be reached for comment.

Anderson will return to his permanent position as a principal engineer at the facility, said the memorandum written by BCUA Executive Jerome F. Sheehan.

The two resignations come as the authority employees' labor union, Local 534 of the Utility Workers Union of America, stepped up its effort to head off the proposed privatization bid by Operations Management International of Colorado. Late Tuesday afternoon, more than 100 union members and their relatives protested in front of the Oradell home of Bergen County Executive William "Pat" Schuber.

Union leaders say OMI would cut the 135-member workforce in half without saving ratepayers money in the long run.

Albert Dealmagro, president of Local 534, asserted that fewer workers would mean less time to do preventive maintenance on sewer lines and equipment at the Little Ferry treatment plant, which handles 75 million gallons of wastewater sewage a day from 47 Bergen municipalities.

"There would be a slow but sure deterioration of the system," Dealmagro predicted. "Ten years from now, the plant will be a wreck."

In a clever turn of words Eric Abrahamsen, head of the BCUA's supervisors association added: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." 

Schuber did not meet with the protesters but sent a letter to mayors of the municipalities served by the BCUA. He blasted the union for what he called "heated rhetoric" that is "misleading and designed to scare off support for privatization rather than advance the discussion."

Schuber said he remained committed to privatizing the BCUA. "I will continue to vigorously oversee negotiations, and I remain committed to a responsible privatization process," he wrote.

The BCUA commissioners are to meet Thursday to discuss privatization, but a vote is not expected.

At issue is a six-year-old effort to bring efficiency to a system that collects, processes, and disposes of sewage from 47 Bergen municipalities. The system cost about $38 million to operate in 2000.

In 1994, Schuber initiated a study that encouraged the BCUA to consider finding a private manager. But the privatization effort has been delayed numerous times -- at one point, for nine months, while a consultant hired by Schuber in 1999 studied the BCUA's work. A vote to hire OMI had been expected early this year, but there is no date scheduled.

In the meantime, privatization has become a political football that is bitterly opposed by the union and county Democrats, who control the Freeholder Board.

Explaining his resignation, Dominguez, a BCUA trustee since 1996, said he now doubts the commitment to privatize the facility. Dominguez submitted his resignation March 8, and it takes effect Thursday.

"I'm resigning because I feel that the reason I was asked to serve on the BCUA was to focus primarily on privatization," said Dominguez, who estimates that privatization could save $10,000 a day. "I don't think we are any closer to that goal than when we started.

"If the county executive wanted to get this done, we could have done it a long time ago," said Dominguez, a Republican and a former Bogota councilman.

Schuber's spokesman, Thom Ammirato, dismissed Dominguez's suggestion as "absurd," saying, "Pat is committed to seeing this process done properly."

"There's no lack of will," Ammirato said. "But there's no rush to judgment either."

After soliciting bids from three companies interested in managing the system, the BCUA in July picked OMI as the best candidate and the two parties are presently negotiating a final deal. With more than 1,200 employees, OMI manages about 140 facilities worldwide, including plants in Hoboken and West New York.

OMI Executive Vice President Gary Miller said the company would save money by increasing efficiencies through energy and chemical conservation and by cutting back staff. OMI has told the BCUA the sewage system can be run with about half the current 135 employees, BCUA officials said.

The authority was set to lay off about 30 people last summer until the plan was held up because an agreement with OMI appeared imminent.

Union officials say their main concern is not simply jobs, but public safety and reducing the possibility of environmental contamination, especially of the water supply.

Dealmagro said a reduction in maintenance employees could increase the risk of sewage spills and leaks that would contaminate the county water supply. In the long run, the lack of maintenance also would increase the risk that pipes could break or leak raw sewage into the county's drinking water, Dealmagro said.