OMI pulling out as Santa Paula wastewater treatment plant operator

By Peggy Kelly

Santa Paula Times

Capping a tumultuous year ranging from the city’s wastewater treatment plant operator being raided as part of an ongoing national investigation to the City Council successfully averting crippling fines, Santa Paula now finds itself up the proverbial creek without a paddle with the plant operator’s notice that it is bowing out.

But wastewater treatment will not be interrupted the council said at an emergency meeting on Saturday where they discussed Operations Management International Inc. notice that they will terminate the contract with the city in 90 days.

The council instructed City Attorney Karl Berger to take such legal action as required to keep the city’s aging wastewater treatment plant operating while City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz looks into options; Bobkiewicz will return to the council with the report on March 15th.

Santa Paula’s neighbor to the east also has a stake in the issue, Fillmore City Engineer Bert Rapp told the council during public comment.

Fillmore and Santa Paula jointly contracted with OMI five years ago and costs to the former will rise if the latter does not continue doing business with the treatment plant operator, Rapp said. Initial costs would jump $40,000 a year, he noted, while other costs would also be impacted if the joint agreement were ended.

Rapp noted that “if we hold the purse strings on repairs,” OMI would not be liable for not meeting state standards through maintenance problems.

Fillmore’s contract with OMI notes cancellation if “Santa Paula drops out,” said Rapp, but since OMI is bowing out, it could be a technicality that could allow a continued business relationship with Fillmore.

Bobkiewicz said that options could include finding another private operator, city operation and recontracting with the Ventura Regional Sanitation District, which lost its Santa Paula/Fillmore contract to OMI.

Councilman Ray Luna said the closure of Santa Paula Memorial Hospital has soured him on outside management and urged that the city consider “short term and long term” solutions, the latter being city operation.

Councilman Rick Cook, an outspoken OMI critic, noted that - under the contract - Santa Paula has subsidized Fillmore’s plant operations.

The city received notice from OMI on Feb. 3rd that it intended to terminate its contract with Santa Paula.

“Santa Paula has worked with OMI over the last year in dealing with many challenges associated with the operation of the city’s wastewater treatment plant,” noted Bobkiewicz.

In 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection and other agencies served a search warrant at the plant as part of an on-going national criminal investigation of OMI.

Later, the city successfully negotiated a strategy with the Regional Water Quality Control Board to bring the city’s facility into compliance with permit requirements, said Bobkiewicz.

OMI worked with the city in developing plans to ensure that additional capital improvements were made to meet these requirements and a new contract was negotiated with OMI that reflected these changes. At some point over the last couple of months, OMI “apparently lost confidence in their own solutions and instead of working with the city further, decided to terminate a contract that was never executed. OMI’s actions here should serve as a cautionary tale for other public agencies around the country working with OMI,” he added

“While Santa Paula will vigorously defend its contractual rights as OMI departs, the main focus today is on the future,” including the new wastewater treatment plant to open in late 2007, said Mayor Gabino Aguirre.