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Little Chute mulls privatizing village water department

Mar. 03, 2004

by J.E. Espino
Post-Crescent staff writer

LITTLE CHUTE — The village Water Commission thinks privatization is the solution to the water department’s staffing shortage.

Convinced that the best option to operate the village water utilities is privatization, the commission wants to draw up a $1 million, five-year contract with Midwest Contract Operations of Neenah.

The Village Board, which is split on the matter, is slated to continue discussing whether privatizing the utility is in the village’s best interest tonight.

Although the board is scheduled to take action, the vote may be postponed until next week to give a trustee who is out of town a chance to vote. If privatization is approved, the board next discusses whether to award the contract to MCO.

“The staff would like an answer. The union would like an answer,” said Street Supt. Jeff Elrick. “Morale is going down. We need to know what’s going to happen, so everybody can get on with their lives, no matter which way the board decides to vote.”

Some trustees look at privatization as a viable option that can be dropped should the village feel differently in the future; others oppose the idea.

“I am so anti-privatization, and I can tell you that till I go blue in the face,” said Trustee Peter Litersky Jr. “It’s a lot easier to keep (the utility) in house than it would be to privatize, see it gone and find out it didn’t work, and then have to start from scratch.”

A village employee believes the cost to find out is too high.

“How would you like it if they did this to you with your job?” asked Jeff Lautenschlager, a 23-year veteran and foreman for the water department. “We try not to take this personal, but it’s hard not to. I’ve put the best years of my life into this job to make it what it is.

“The village is going to lose control of its utilities and the experience we have,” he said. “Yes, MCO may have technical expertise, but the distributing system came from us. Can MCO do the distributing system like we do? Can they treat the customers the way we do? I don’t know,” he said.

Since May, the water department has operated with two employees, rotating 24-hour pager duties every other week, and despite village growth in the past 10 years, the number of employees in the department had stayed at three, according to Lautenschlager.

A village contract, spearheaded by Litersky and Trustee Bill Peerenboom to counter MCO’s proposal, was rejected.

Under the contract, the village would have continued to operate the utility by providing cross training between two public works employees and the water department for one year. Cost operations were roughly estimated to be $194,849 — $12,651 lower than MCO’s projections for 2004.

The following year, costs would increase to $206,156. That figure would be $17,861 higher than the private contractor’s offer.

“Cross training commitment only extends for a year, and then we’d be back in the same situation,” said Mike Bevers, a Water Commission member.

Public Works Director Roy Van Gheem cautions the board about voting down privatization.

“My concern is you’re going back to the same issues that have been there for years,” he said.

Privatization, under the MCO proposed contract, guarantees a fully staffed department and backup plans in case of injuries, vacations or sick leave. MCO would absorb two public works employees and provide training.

J.E. Espino can be reached at 920-993-1000 ext. 426 or by e-mail at jespino@postcrescent.com