BCUA votes no on sewer privatization --cuts staff 65%

Friday, June 22, 2001

Staff Writer

An effort to privatize Bergen County's sewer operations died in a 3-1 vote Thursday night, prompting cheers from an audience concerned about jobs and the environment.

With little comment, the Bergen County Utilities Authority decided to end negotiations with Colorado-based Operations Management International, a private contractor that had sought to run the Little Ferry plant that serves 600,000 residents in 47 municipalities in the county.

The commissioners deliberated for months behind closed doors over whether the plant, which has a $47 million budget, could be run more cheaply by a private company or whether the utilities authority could make itself lean and efficient enough to satisfy the concerns that led to the privatization talks in the first place.

On Thursday night it was unclear whether the authority commissioners will return to the issue.

County Executive William "Pat" Schuber first proposed the idea in 1994 -- saying it was in response to municipalities' complaints about rising rates.

"It was disappointing after six years and literally millions of dollars expended," Adam Strobel, an aide to Schuber, said after the vote. "In due time there needs to be a full understanding of how they arrived at this decision."

Before the vote, nearly 100 plant workers, union officials, and environmentalists said privatizing the sewer operations would have many ill effects.

"I've been here 15 years," said Billy Griner, a messenger who sat in the front row with his wife and 7-month-old daughter. "I'm 42 years old. I don't want to have to start all over."

Jim Young, of the labor watchdog New Jersey Work Environment Council, called the plant workers "the guardians of our water."

Until the vote was cast there was no indication on the fate of the privatization effort. Commissioner Frank Faimondo had recused himself because he once had done work for one of the three companies that offered to run the plant. Commissioner Bernard "Skip" Kelley, the county recycling coordinator, abstained over controversy about whether he should vote.

The lone vote to continue the privatization effort was that of John C. Glidden Jr. Commissioners Benedict Focarino, Eugene D. Becken, and Joseph M. Tedeschi voted to end the negotiations.

The commissioners declined to discuss the specific reasons behind their votes. Focarino said only that they weighed cost and environmental concerns. Tedeschi said he had serious concerns about plant maintenance and potential effects on the environment.

Cutting corners, he said, would degrade the system. He said he asked whether the county would be better served by a private company.

"We didn't think so," Tedeschi said.

Albert Dealmagro, president of the union that represents many of the plant workers, praised "a very timely decision."

"I just hope the county executive respects the decision of the public officials who know best," Dealmagro said.

Of the three companies that offered bids to run the plant, OMI was chosen by the commissioners last year as the best candidate to do the job.

At the same time, commissioners worked to make the existing operations more cost-efficient. They installed computer monitoring systems that cut staffing needs. They stopped treating sewage sludge at the authority's dewatering plant and began shipping the sludge to a Newark plant, saving more money.

Overall, the treatment plant's workforce has been cut about 65 percent, from 387 workers to 134. And during the past four years, sewerage rates on average have dropped 30 percent, Tedeschi said.

As the privatization talks moved forward, union members and Democrats on the county freeholder board stepped up attempts to stop them.