Bridgeport seeks sewage operator

By BILL CUMMINGS bcummings@ctpost.com

Saturday, June 29, 2002 - BRIDGEPORT

The city is looking for new outside managers to run its sewage-treatment facilities in anticipation of the current operator walking off the job in October.

U.S. Filter, which also does business as Professional Service Group, has told city officials it will stop managing the sewage system Oct. 1. In response, the Water Pollution Control Authority voted Thursday night to seek proposals from other companies interested in taking over.

City Attorney Mark Anastasi advised the WPCA that taking steps to hire a new operator does not violate the current contract because PSG has told the city it plans to leave.

"We are operating under the notion of an anticipatory breach by PSG. We have received notice that they intend to terminate Oct. 1. On that basis, we are taking steps to mitigate damages and preserve the health and welfare of the community," Anastasi said.

Rich LaVoie, a PSG area manager, said the company accepts the city's actions. He said PSG agreed to a city invitation to end the contract issued last November.

"We were told we failed to meet staffing requirements under a [state] consent order. Failure to meet requirements terminates our contract," LaVoie said.

However, LaVoie said he disagrees with the state-mandated staffing levels, which require 24 more workers than the 80 PSG employs.

"The current situation pushes both sides to breach," LaVoie said. "We had good relationships and don't wish to continue if the client is not happy with our services."

Meanwhile, about 30 sewer plant workers attended Thursday night's WPCA meeting to urge the board to protect their jobs.

"These people work hard and do a good job," said Kevin O'Toole, a union official who represents a portion of the sewer system's workers.

The WPCA authorized a formal request for proposals stipulating current workers be offered contracts "equal to or better" than existing contract terms. The new company is given the option of running the entire sewer system or excluding sludge disposal from its responsibilities.

Responses must be submitted to the city by July 31.

PSG's departure will mark the second time a major city privatization effort has failed.

National Fairways, hired in the mid-1990s to run Fairchild Wheeler Golf Club, was evicted by the city last year. Both sides claim to be owed money in the disputed arrangement.

PSG was hired in 1996 and was granted an 18-year extension in 1999. The re-hiring of PSG is a major factor in the federal racketeering charges against Mayor Joseph P. Ganim.

Federal prosecutors allege that Ganim shared in hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks when the contract was awarded. The process involved issuing a formal request for proposals, as was authorized Thursday by the WPCA.

Ganim is facing extortion, bribery and mail fraud charges as well. The mayor denies the allegations.

The point of privatization, according to city officials, is to save money in running the treatment plans.

Under the contract, PSG was to pay the city $6 million. In return, the WPCA was committed to pay PSG $8.6 million during each of the first two years of the contract, and $10.4 million per year during the third to 18th years.