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Talks 'intense' about privatizing water

Minister says private-sector know-how is needed, but serious concerns raised by Montreal councillor and others

LINDA GYULAI
The Gazette

Allowing municipalities to cede delivery of public services - particularly water - to the private sector is part of "intense" discussions by the provincial government, Municipal Affairs Minister Jean-Marc Fournier said yesterday.

While some ministers in Premier Jean Charest's cabinet have raised concerns about the spectre of water meters and private water management, Fournier spelled out the government's guideline for privatization in a speech in Montreal: Private enterprise would have to offer the same or better service at a lower cost.

Moreover, municipalities would have to retain ownership of assets and accountability for the services, he said. A proposal could come at provincial budget time, he said. That means early next year.

Fournier made the remarks at a conference on infrastructure organized by the Centre d'expertise et de recherche en infrastructures urbaines.

The Liberal government is studying public-private partnership models that could be adapted to Quebec for municipal services, Fournier told the crowd, whose members were from private public-works firms and municipal organizations.

Asked later what services he meant, he said: "At this time we are certainly looking very, very, very much at the water."

After a Liberal general council this year, Charest discounted water as a service that could be privatized.

But Fournier said yesterday that private-sector know-how and funds are needed because $1 billion a year over 15 years is required to fix infrastructure, most of it for water, across Quebec.

Private-public partnership is not the same thing as privatization, Fournier said.

"Whatever you call it, it will make public ownership symbolic only," said Yves Bellavance, spokesperson for the Table régionale des organismes volontaires en éducation populaire, an umbrella group of Montreal community organizations.

The Charest government has already raised the hackles of unions, tabling amendments to the Labour Code last week that would facilitate outsourcing of work.

The chairperson of the Centre d'expertise, Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt, said he favours privatization, at least for roadwork and sewage treatment, because it would save money and help smaller towns that lack funds to build infrastructure.

The long-awaited Highway 25 link from Laval to Montreal could be built by a private firm and paid for with tolls, he said.

Montreal, however, did not offer an enthusiastic response.

"We think water management should be within the hands and control of city council," said Councillor Alan DeSousa, in charge of sustainable development for Mayor Gérald Tremblay's administration, when told of Fournier's remarks yesterday.

lgyulai@thegazette.canwest.com

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