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Review raises concerns about sewerage upkeep
But United Water is praised

By MARIE ROHDE

A performance review of the private firm that operates the sewerage system raises red flags about the maintenance of publicly owned equipment and property.

Despite the concerns, the review, released Monday after being conducted by a private consultant hired by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, praised the firm, United Water Services, for generally doing a good job.

But it also questioned whether United Water has gone too far in reducing the number of employees running the system. The review proposed that MMSD come up with a system of financial incentives to encourage better maintenance and decreasing the frequency and quantity of sewage dumped during major storms.

"The fact of the matter is that United Water entered into the contract with the idea they were going to make money," said Don Theiler, the lead author of the review. "It's pretty obvious that United Water is losing money, and that is not a good situation for anyone. That places the people who are in charge of the operation in a very difficult position."

Theiler, a Wisconsin native who worked in air-quality regulation for the state Department of Natural Resources, is a top official with the wastewater utility in Seattle. He brought in advisers from Seattle and Chicago to do the review, which has cost $157,000 and taken nearly nine months to complete. Theiler and others donated their labor to the project, but their travel and other expenses were paid by the district, said Bill Graffin, a district spokesman.

Theiler said the private management at United Water would be under intense pressure to cut corners to make a profit but added no evidence of that had been found.

None of the maintenance issues was with "crucial equipment," Theiler said. However, the review questioned whether United Water had a sufficient inventory of critical spare parts and suggested that some sort of mediation should be initiated to resolve disputes.

The review noted that some corrective orders issued by the district "are accumulating without action by United Water . . . there is a backlog of deficit items, with some having been reported more than a year ago."

United Water Service took over the operation of the system in 1998 with the promise of saving taxpayers $140 million over 10 years. After five years, the savings have amounted to $66.4 million.

Terry Tobel, who heads the United Water operation in Milwaukee, declined to discuss whether the private operation was making money but said the firm intends to fulfill the remaining five years of the contract. He also said he disagrees with the assertions of poor maintenance and that staffing levels - which dropped from 300 to 209 employees - are too low.

In a six-page statement released Monday, Tobel noted many improvements United Water made to the system and said the quality of the effluent was better than when the district ran the system.

Theiler suggested two recent incidents at the Jones Island Waste Water Treatment Plant - a slick of spent condoms apparently released from the plant and the decision not to fully treat some effluent in May - could have been related to the maintenance and staffing problems.

"These two incidents should not have happened," said Theiler, who is proposing financial incentives for United Water to extend the life of equipment and provide better maintenance.

The current contract calls for United Water to pay the first $5,000 of any repair cost or to put $5,000 toward a replacement; the district is required to pay the rest, which could be an incentive to defer maintenance and shorten the life of some equipment.

"This is seen in our daily lives," Theiler said. "Everyone wants a new car when something starts going wrong with the old one."

MMSD issued United Water a notice of non-compliance after the May 30 incident when a plant operator mistakenly released about 2 million gallons of partially treated sewage from the Jones Island plant.

Tobel said three operators were working when the incident occurred, but no supervisor was at the plant. Supervisors were summoned and stopped the release when they arrived.

Tobel said he is requiring that a supervisor carry a key that would allow the gates to open and release partially treated sewage. He also said he was considering a policy change that would require a supervisor to be at the plant at all times.

The Department of Natural Resources cited MMSD for the event and noted that United Water's corrective actions should prevent a recurrence of the problem.

Kevin Shafer, MMSD's executive director, said he would issue directives to United Water next week requiring it to make some changes.

Theiler also addressed MMSD's poor public image, which he said was largely undeserved and astonished him.

"The district is in a deep hole with regard to public perception, and it's not going to be easy to overcome," Theiler said. "You have to deal with it very forthrightly. You need to get it out before the media discovers it and makes it look like you're hiding it."

Andy Lukas of Milwaukee's Brown and Caldwell and John Moser of Milwaukee's TN & Associates also worked with Theiler on the review.



From the June 24, 2003, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel