Easton council treads carefully over water plant contract operator

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The Express-Times

EASTON -- City council members are worried about rushing to hire operators for the water treatment plant that serves about 70,000 area residents.

Council wants to move cautiously to avoid contracting with a firm that would be expensive or poorly equipped to manage city employees who work at the plant.

April 28 marks the end of Easton's 10-year contract with United Water LLC to run the city-owned plant on North Delaware Drive. Three companies plan to submit contract proposals by Friday, city Public Services Director David Hopkins told council at its meeting Tuesday.

City law requires a contract to be introduced and approved at separate meetings. Council meets April 13 and is not scheduled to meet again until the day the contract expires.

Council Vice President Michael P. Fleck said he wants to closely review the proposals, even though Hopkins plans to give council a list of each offer's pros and cons along with his recommendation.

Fleck said he does not want the city administration's recommendation forced on council.

Councilwoman Pam Panto encouraged her colleagues to trust Hopkins' expertise. He came to city hall in January from an engineering firm that managed water and sewage treatment plants.

If council is uncomfortable with the timetable, Hopkins said, United Water may agree to run the plant for another month. The city is seeking a one-year contract to buy time for reviewing long-term options for running the plant.

"We will have somebody in place," Hopkins told council.

Hopkins said he has United Water's offer and is awaiting proposals from Miller Environmental Inc. and American Water. He has been negotiating with the companies with Councilman Ken Brown, officials from the Easton Suburban Water Authority and city labor representatives.

"You're running out of time," council President Sandra Vulcano told Brown during Tuesday's council meeting.

Hopkins said part of the delay in getting the companies' proposals is the city's request for resumes of the professionals who would run the plants.

The city is looking for the contract to include:

(1) performance incentives to save the city money and increase efficiency;

(2)  a guarantee all expenses the city budgets are spent or returned to city. Nothing in the current contract calls for that, though Hopkins said United Water asks for reimbursement on expenses that run over what the city budgets; and

(3) plans to complete the plant's risk management plan update by a June deadline.

"The scope of the contract is very important," Hopkins said.

Fleck announced he would not support another contract with United Water. He has pushed for ending ties to the Harrington Park, N.J.-based company since he took office in January 2002. He faults the company with charging the city too much and for mismanaging problems with workers.

The plant treats water for more than 26,000 residents in Easton and more than 44,000 residents of West Easton, Wilson and Glendon boroughs and Forks, Palmer, Bethlehem, Williams and Lower Nazareth townships.

Reporter Kurt Bresswein can be reached at 610-258-7171 or  kbresswein@express-times.com.

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