September 24, 2004 - LEE -- Four years of discussion, debate, planning
and voting came to a head last night as town representatives shot down a
proposal by a Houston, Texas-based water company to privatize the town's
sewer and water systems.
The vote was 41 opposed and 10 in favor
of entering into a 20-year private contract with Veolia Water North
America, LLC, of Houston. Town Clerk Suzanne Scarpa said 51 of the
town's 54 representatives attended the meeting.
Town representative Deidre Consolati, a
staunch opponent of the privatization, thrust both hands into the air
and cheered when the vote tally was read.
Earlier in the evening Consolati gave a
presentation advocating for a way the town could maintain its own sewer
plant for $900,000 less than it would cost Veolia to run.
"This is only one of any number of
options," she said. "But it would be very directly town-owned
As a result of the meeting, the town will
continue to operate its own water and sewer plants independently of each
other. The sewer plant is expected to be expanded, with special town
meeting members appropriating $660,000 for the design and bidding
process and $4 million for its design and construction.
In addition, voters approved the creation
of a voluntary bid oversight committee to assure the process is
A total of $12 million had been
authorized by voters at two separate special town meetings in 1999 and
2002 to be used for the sewer plant. The money approved last night was
in addition to that $12 million.
Although the town has been working on the
issue for more than four years, the controversy bubbled to the surface
in Lee over the past four months. Opponents of the privatization plan
were uncomfortable with the concept of an outside firm taking control of
a public resource. In addition, they pointed out that the seven town
employees who stood to be rehired by Veolia once the takeover was
complete were opposed to the plan.
Proponents of Veolia's proposal
emphasized the potential cost savings in construction of at least $1.2
million. Town employees, they said, would earn a wage and benefit
package equal to that which is offered by the town of Lee.
At least 150 people turned out at Lee
High School to discuss the issue. However, Moderator Jerome Scully
stated at the outset of the meeting that only town representatives would
be allowed to address the crowd.
Some audience members disregarded
Scully's statement, yelling and booing when pro-Veolia comments were
made by speakers.
Hostile atmosphere [see below for
manifesto of organized agitators]
Representative Alexandra Heddinger said
she was "saddened by the atmosphere of hostility" created by
some townspeople. She said the community should respect all people's
opinions despite their position. She was opposed to the privatization.
"I think you need to do what you
think is right," Heddinger said. "It has almost gotten to the
point where if you support Veolia it is almost like you are being
Representatives of the Board of Selectmen
and Finance Committee stated their support for privatization.
"This was the most difficult
decision I have ever had to make," said David Parker, a member of
the Finance Committee. "But we had to vote based on the dollars and
because there is a savings we recommend you vote 'yes' on this
Selectmen Chairman Gordon Bailey said the
board supported privatization so long as employees were guaranteed
health benefits and the board were allowed to periodically review
Veolia's work for the town.
No representatives from the audience
spoke in favor of privatization.
Since the issue was first broached, the
town agreed to seek special state legislation that would allow it to
privatize its water and sewer treatment operations; put out a request
for proposals for companies to bid on the potential project, and most
recently began negotiating a 20-year contract with Veolia.
A series of public hearings and special
town meetings were held along the way informing the public about Veolia
as well as seeking its authorization for a variety of things.
Veolia officials had said the town could
save $6 million-plus over the life of the contract. The cost of building
a new sewer plant and upgrading the water system is expected to cost, in
rough numbers, about $39.1 million.
The town's costs could run about $45
million over 20 years, according to figures generated by the town's
Under Veolia's proposed contract, the
company would have been obligated to cover the costs of construction,
schedule- and operating-cost overruns; electricity consumption; repair
and replacement of the facilities; regulatory compliance, and sludge
disposal. The town will now be responsible for those costs.
About four years ago, the Selectmen were
served a consent decree from the state Department of Public Works,
ordering the town to upgrade and expand its waste-water treatment plant.
In this case, the Lee plant was working
fine. The issue was that the 30-year-old facility at times did not have
enough capacity to handle all the effluent generated during heavy
This year Selectmen decided to put out a
request for proposals for the project. While more than 40 firms sought
bid packages, Veolia was the sole company to submit a bid package.
Last night's special town meeting had
been continued from Sept. 9.