Bergen County Executive may veto utilities authority move to stop privatization talks

Saturday, June 23, 2001

By SHANNON D. HARRINGTON
Staff Writer

Bergen County Executive William "Pat" Schuber is considering whether to veto Thursday's decision by county utilities commissioners that killed a six-year effort to privatize the county's main sewage plant.

"Pat's going to take it under advisement," spokesman Thom Ammirato said Friday. "He hasn't looked at the minutes [from Thursday's meeting]. He has 10 days to do that. He has not made a decision one way or the other."

The Bergen County Utilities Authority voted 3-1 to end talks with Colorado-based Operations Management International, the leading candidate for a plant takeover, and two other companies that had made offers.

But many said Friday that even if Schuber does veto the BCUA action, it may serve only as a statement of disapproval. Though he could nullify the resolution to end privatization talks, it did not appear he could compel the BCUA commissioners to sit back down at the negotiating table.

"In a veto message, he can't compel them to revote or change their vote," said County Counsel Elizabeth Randall.

Whatever happens, Schuber staffers said the county executive will be asking plenty of questions about what led the BCUA commissioners to kill what at times seemed the likely privatization of the plant.

It was Schuber who in 1994 first suggested that the treatment plant -- criticized for soaring operations costs -- could be more efficiently run by a for-profit company. Until Thursday's vote -- which was made by Schuber appointees -- the county executive remained convinced that despite cuts at the plant in recent years, privatization would offer the most savings to ratepayers.

OMI had told the BCUA it could operate the plant with half of its current workforce. One commissioner said the company claimed it could save $10,000 a day.

But with two commissioners abstaining from the vote, a majority of the board said they were not convinced that the treatment plant, which has a $47 million annual budget, would be better off in the hands of OMI or the two other bidders.

Vice Chairman Joseph Tedeschi cited concerns that a private company would sacrifice maintenance for profits, risking sewer spills and line breaks that could threaten the region's drinking water.

As the commissioners negotiated with OMI, they began trimming costs and staff. The sewage plant's workforce was cut by 62 percent, from 357 to 134.

The plant's largest union even conceded to 49 layoffs and a two-year wage freeze earlier this year to stave off privatization.

Schuber staffers were claiming victory in the cuts and staff reductions.

"After a year of being told we can't possibly lay anybody off, and then [the union] agrees to lay 49 people off?" Ammirato said. "Would that have happened without talk of privatization? Absolutely not.

"In that sense, it's a victory."

Still, Schuber staffers say the county executive will be looking for a solid explanation for why they voted as they did -- including a chance to peruse the reams of reports and proposals that the commissioners have been deliberating for the past several months.

Citing secrecy laws, the commissioners would release few details about the privatization proposals to the public.

Tedeschi welcomed the scrutiny by Schuber.

"Mr. Schuber's entitled to anything he wants," Tedeschi said.

Democratic Freeholder Valerie Huttle, who along with other Democrats on the Freeholder Board fought to block the privatization effort, said Friday that she hopes Schuber will let the issue die.

Huttle attended the BCUA meeting Thursday prepared to speak against what many thought would be a resolution to turn the sewage plant operations over to OMI. But her comments were cut short by the 3-1 vote to end negotiations with the Colorado company and to discontinue privatization talks in general.

"I would hope it's the end," Huttle said Friday. "They don't have any valid reason to privatize."