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Hamilton, Ontario's water, sewage to stay contracted out

HAMILTON - Hamilton councilors rejected calls for more public consultation and voted 6-3 yesterday to continue contracting out operation of the city's water- and sewage-treatment plants.

The public works committee recommendation goes to the full city council next Wednesday night.

If it's approved, officials will abandon the idea of taking operations back in-house and will seek bids on a new contract to replace an untendered 10-year pact that expires Dec. 31.

The present deal has been dogged by controversy since the former Hamilton-Wentworth region awarded it without competition to the then-local Philip Utilities Management Corp. PUMC was later sold to Azurix North America, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Enron, in turn swallowed by American Water Works, which is now owned by a German multinational company.

Azurix was blamed for a massive sewage spill and collected a number of environmental convictions and fines.

The contract covers operation of the main water-treatment plant, three communal well systems, three sewage-treatment plants, six sewage-storage tanks and a number of reservoirs and pumping stations. It does not cover water mains, sewer pipes or water testing, which remain in the hands of city employees.

After hearing from 17 speakers, most of whom asked for further study, the committee first voted not to delay a decision, then to accept a staff recommendation to again contract out the work. The split was the same on both votes.

On one side was a suburban majority consisting of Mayor Larry Di Ianni and councillors Dave Mitchell, Margaret McCarthy, Murray Ferguson, Phil Bruckler and Dave Braden. On the other were old-Hamilton councillors Chad Collins, Tom Jackson and Sam Merulla.

Collins, who is committee chair, called the decisions regrettable, saying the message he'd heard from citizens is that they wanted to be more involved in the debate over an "untouchable" essential service.

Among the speakers who argued against contracting out were Sid Ryan, Ontario president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees; Sara Ehrhardt, national water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, and Andrea Kelly, representing the Canadian Catholic Organizaton for Development and Peace (Hamilton Diocese).

Di Ianni missed most of the meeting to be with Premier Dalton McGuinty on a visit to Helen Detwiler School on the south Mountain, prompting Earhardt to complain the mayor "didn't take time to listen and yet voted."

Lynda Lukasik, called the committee action "shocking," saying it showed "blatant disregard for citizens."

Water and wastewater director Jim Harnum told the committee earlier this month the city had realized the $703,000 annual savings guaranteed in the original contract, but yesterday he upped the nine-year savings to more than $9 million.

When questioned, he said he could only explain the difference in camera, at a closed-door session with the public excluded. Peter Crockett, general manager of public works, also told committee members they would have to go in camera to hear about negotiations on a reported $8 million in extra payments American Water is seeking from the city.

Torstar News Service