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Public activists coalesce against private operation of
Holyoke wastewater treatment plant

November 11, 2004

By David Reid

HOLYOKE - A grassroots group took root this week when, spurred by concern over plans to privatize the city's sewer department, a handful of residents and city councilors held an organizational meeting Monday.

The next afternoon, more than a dozen members of the group, Holyoke Citizens for Open Government, packed into a meeting of the Board of Public Works and demanded more time to review the as-yet unreleased 20-year contract with Aquarion Water Services of Bridgeport, Conn.

After several members, including Ward 3 City Councilor Helen F. Norris, said their piece, the Board of Public Works voted to extend the public comment period until noon Nov. 29.

Board Chairman Joseph E. Morrison said the board could further extend the deadline to allow for more debate.

And the board, which has not yet voted to accept the bid by Aquarion - the only bid submitted by a June deadline - voted 3-0 to raise sewer rates by 84.6 percent from $1.95 to $3.60 per 1,000 gallons starting in January.

Those extra revenues, Public Works Superintendent William D. Fuqua said Tuesday, would help fund the long-overdue massive modernization of the Berkshire Street wastewater treatment plant, regardless of whether Aquarion is hired.

"We need a revenue stream to pay for the work," he said.

Under the proposed 20-year public-private partnership, Aquarion would upgrade and operate the sewage treatment plant and hire 26 city sewer workers.

The contract, negotiated between Aquarion and consultants hired two years ago by the city, requires the company to comply with strict federal standards to eliminate raw sewage releases into the Connecticut River during heavy rains.

For its services, Aquarion would be paid an average annual service fee of $8.43 million.

Mayor Michael J. Sullivan has said he would likely sign the contract if, as city consultants have estimated, sewer rate-payers would save from $7.1 million to $8.6 million over the life of the contract.

Among members of the residents group Tuesday, there was no optimism about the contract with Aquarion.

Group organizer Carolyn T. Oppenheim of Yale Street told reporters that city consultants were overwhelmed in negotiations with Aquarion, a multi-national company that stands to make millions off the deal.

Oppenheim called for officials to publish the contract and notify all rate-payers of where it can be publicly viewed.

Group member Jonathan Bates said he is concerned when basic public services such as sewer or water are privatized.

"I'm concerned the process is being put through without citizen input," he said.

The group has also set up an "urgent public meeting" for 7 p.m. Monday at the Joseph Metcalf Preschool, 2019 Northampton St., to discuss the downside of privatizing.

City Councilors Helen F. Norris, Lillian Santiago, Kevin A. Jourdain and Mark A. Lubold have expressed support for the group.

Lubold has said that mistakenly high projections of the city's cost to operate the treatment plant have artificially inflated projected savings from Aquarion's bid.