$27 million in consulting queried at water plants
But city votes to push on with plan for automation

  By Paul Moloney
Toronto Star City Hall Bureau

A $110 million automation of Toronto's water treatment plants will continue despite strong concerns over $27 million spent for consulting and design work so far, council has decided.

Councillor Tom Jakobek, the city's budget chief, said he's concerned about signing further consulting contracts without analysis of whether the money is being well spent.

Jakobek fears that if the cost of a ``consortium'' of 10 consultants gets out of hand, there may not be enough money for new equipment at the city's four sewage treatment and four water filtration plants. "Not one cent has been spent on automation equipment,'' Jakobek said during the day-long debate on the issue yesterday. "Not one cent has been spent on equipment upgrades.''

The automation move promises $36 million in annual savings starting in 2003, said water division general manager Mike Price.

Price said 70 per cent of the savings comes from cutting the workforce by 540 positions - to 754 from 1,294 - and the rest from lower electricity, chemicals and materials costs.

"There is a need to replace and upgrade a lot of our operating infrastructure,'' Price said.

 

"Not one cent has been spent on automation equipment. Not one cent has been spent on equipment upgrades."

Councillor Tom Jakobek

 

Jakobek complained he isn't getting enough information to judge whether the project will pay off. "Are we following these expenditures? The answer right now is I honestly don't know,'' he said.

Council's works committee had recommended the project be halted while a review was carried out, but council voted to push on.

Mayor Mel Lastman said a halt could kill the project.

"I don't know if you just want to throw money out the window, but $27 million to me is a heckuva lot of money,'' Lastman said, adding he's convinced the project is worthwhile.

Councillor Jack Layton said the unionized workers fear the upgrades will lead to pressure to sell the water system to the private sector. He moved that council declare the system off limits.

Layton wasn't satisified with verbal assurances that the city would keep the assets in order to retain control over water rates.

"would never recommend selling the assets,'' Price said.

Layton said council should pass a formal resolution to that effect, but he was ruled out of order by Deputy Mayor Case Ootes, chair of the meeting.

"This is round one of a big battle over the future of our water system,'' Layton told reporters later.

To address union concerns about layoffs, council ordered officials to draft a strategy to transfer redundant water workers to other jobs within the municipal workforce.

And councillors insisted that workers be offered re-training to qualify for the new types of jobs available in an automated water system, and resolved that no redundant worker be laid off at least until the end of 2000.

Union official Brian Cochrane said he was gratified by council's support but wondered why workers' concerns had gone unheeded for eight months.

"We're not foreign to the idea of continuing technological change in the (water) plants as long as the training goes with it so our guys have the opportunity,'' Cochrane said.