City hopes privatizing will save tax money

GEOFF PENDER
THE SUN HERALD

GULFPORT - A private company promises to provide better water and sewer services than city government does and says it will save taxpayers money to boot.

The city will pay Atlanta-based OPTECH, Inc. about $1 million a year, for now, to take over its water and sewer operations, billing and collection services. Six months ago, OPTECH took over the city's streets and drainage work for $2 million a year. Gulfport estimates its contracts with the company for streets, drainage, water and sewer work will save government almost $300,000 a year.

City leaders and some residents have said that OPTECH has so far improved streets and drainage services.

The City Council on Sept. 14 voted to turn over water and sewer to the company. Tuesday's council vote was to formalize contracts. OPTECH will take over on Friday.

The company now controls most of the city's Public Works Department. Only traffic control and the city maintenance garage will remain under city management.

But the city will probably have to renegotiate its water and sewer contracts with OPTECH soon. Gulfport plans to purchase Orange Grove Utilities, a private water and sewer company, before the first of the year. The $34 million purchase would add about 6,000 customers to the city water system, which currently has about 15,000 customers.

Butch Jordan, city chief executive officer, said the city has no estimate of how much more the city would have to pay OPTECH after the utility purchase.

Councilwoman Ella Holmes-Hines, who voted against privatization of water and sewer along with Councilman Jimmie Jenkins, said the city should have waited until after its planned purchase of Orange Grove Utilities before it considered a private contract.