Easton, PA picks water, sewage operator

Miller Environmental submits offer that is 23 percent lower than United Water

Thursday, April 08, 2004

The Express-Times

EASTON -- Miller Environmental, a small but experienced company is poised to take over treatment of Easton area residents' drinking water and sewage.

City council committed Tuesday to hiring Miller Environmental for one year to manage the city's water and wastewater treatment plants on Route 611. The company's proposal was 23 percent cheaper than the next lowest bidder, United Water, city public services Director David Hopkins said.

United Water's 10-year contract to run the plants expires April 28. City Councilman Michael P. Fleck led the push to replace United Water ever since he took office early 2002. His chief complaint was that the city paid the Somerville, N.J., company too much.

Miller Environmental's contract will cost about $629,000. Hopkins said the final cost is still being negotiated. Stu Gallaher, the city's chief of staff, said changes would not push the cost above the other proposals. United Water's one-year contract renewal offer was for $817,789.

Hopkins said the contract with Miller Environmental would save the city $139,000 below what is budgeted to run the plant this year. The total savings through April 2005 is $208,000.

Hopkins proposes creating two new city jobs with savings from the contract with Miller Environmental. He said salaries and benefits would cost about $92,000 for a supervisor for Easton's water distribution crew and a maintenance mechanic to work at the plant.

The supervisor would oversee such jobs as finding leaks, testing water hydrants and removing sewerage blockages.

"There's probably enough work for two people in this position," Hopkins said.

The water plant manager, which is an employee of the contracted company, now oversees the jobs the supervisor would handle.

Miller Environmental can save the city money because it has low overhead costs, said Jim Hopkins. He and other project managers for the company work from home, which is Springfield Township, Bucks County, in Jim Hopkins' case. The company's only central office is in Reading, home to its bookkeepers.

Jim Hopkins and David Hopkins are not related, the latter said.

Jim Hopkins said the contract with Easton is Miller Environmental's biggest so far, because it covers both the water and wastewater treatment plants. The company handles larger individual plants, such as the Reading Area Water Authority's plant that treats 40 million gallons per day.

Easton's plant is permitted to treat 12 million gallons per day. A three-phase expansion slated to start next year and cost an estimated $10 million is designed increase the capacity to 16 million gallons per day.

Roy White, manager of the Easton Suburban Water Authority, said he was confident in Miller Environmental's ability to step in later this month and pick up where United Water left off. The water plant serves about 44,000 authority customers in West Easton, Wilson and Glendon boroughs and Forks, Palmer, Bethlehem, Williams and Lower Nazareth townships.

Mark Horberg, United Water's general manager of municipal operations, said United Water would "do everything we can to help them with a smooth transition to help things go smoothly."

City council praised David Hopkins for involving the city work force in contract negotiations with the firms who submitted proposals. Hopkins said starting as public services director Jan. 26 left him little time to acclimate to the negotiations, making the employees' input vital to the process.

"It was nice to be included for a change," said John Mandarino, president of the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees Local 447 union.

Also involved in negotiating a new contract were the Easton Suburban Water and Easton Area Joint Sewer authorities, Councilman Ken Brown and city chief of staff Stu Gallaher.

After council on Tuesday introduced Miller Environmental's contract for approval April 13, its members met privately to discuss a potential lawsuit being filed by United Water over its contract.

Horberg dispelled those fears Wednesday.

"We're not planning any litigation that I'm aware of," Horberg said. "The city's been a great client for us. We believe we've done a great job for them. I wouldn't see any issue here."


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