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Court date set for USFilter dispute

By Velda Hunter
The Facts

Published April 11, 2004

ANGLETON — The city of Angleton wants to go to court.

But the company that used to run its wastewater treatment plant and street maintenance doesn’t want to see that happen.

A judge will have the final say when the two make a court appearance May 10 to see whether the dispute will go into litigation or arbitration. That’s after a failed mediation attempt.

The city says USFilter, now called Veolia Water, breached its contract by not hiring enough employees to run the plants and maintain streets, by not submitting annual capital project reports and improperly charging expenses to the maintenance and repair budget.

USFilter denies those allegations, saying the decision to end the contract was driven by city politics not its performance. The company wants to go through arbitration to settle disputes, given that’s the process outlined in the contract.

“We just feel like this situation is extremely unfortunate,” said Christie Kaluza, a USFilter spokeswoman. “We feel we have maintained a stellar record in Angleton.”

Angleton City Attorney Keith Vaughn disagrees.

Vaughn said the contract was terminated for lack of performance. The city wants USFilter to pay about $1 million for street maintenance, drainage and mowing services he said the company never provided.

“We think we should be in court instead of arbitration,” Vaughn said. “When the people on the jury see what they’ve done to us, they will come back with a favorable response for the city.”

Affidavits filed at the Brazoria County Courthouse by USFilter state the company’s project manager told an employee to tell others to “take anything belonging to the city” when the city announced it was taking over the plant Jan. 5.

Employees took city property, including a mower and welding machine, according to one affidavit. However, the manager told an employee to tell others to return the property after learning the city didn’t plan to take over that day, court records show.

Some items are still missing.

Kaluza called the claims made in the affidavits “completely false.” When the city terminated the contract and took over operations, Kaluza said city officials locked the doors, taking possession of $50,000 worth of USFilter equipment, including vehicles.

But a relationship gone sour hasn’t slowed workers from getting the job done, despite a brewing legal battle.

The city has been in charge of the plant and street maintenance since January when council members terminated the USFilter contract. The takeover brought few challenges, said David King, assistant public works director.

“It was just a matter of doubling the workforce, but it was a smooth transition,” King said. “We’ve gotten back up to what they had.” USFilter had 16 workers, and most of the city’s employees are former USFilter employees. More training wasn’t necessary, he said.

City Administrator Michael Stoldt said operations since have been going well. But to say the city has received no complaints wouldn’t be true, he said.

“You’re always going to get some complaints from the community,” said Robert Heinemeyer, public works director.

The complaints are typical of most cities — sewer back-up during heavy rainfalls. But overall, the community seems to be happy with the service, Heinemeyer said.

However, the city was fined $5,250 by the state last week after levels of ammonia, nitrogen, zinc and suspended solids exceeded what is allowed at the wastewater treatment plant in March 2003 and May 2003. The violations occurred while the plant was run by USFilter.

Both the city and USFilter said the violations had been corrected. Kaluza said the violations occurred during an aeration upgrade.

“We got fined for just the ammonia level, which was high due to the construction that was going on,” Kaluza said. “We immediately called the state on both accounts and corrected the issue. … The plant had 99 percent compliance in 2003.”

Severn Trent, the city’s contractor specializing in water and wastewater services, visits the site, monitors operations and helps correct problems, said Angleton Mayor Matt Sebesta. The company stepped in during the transition and helped correct an ammonia problem the plant had for a few years, he said.

Since the takeover, there have been some operational changes, such as aeration adjustments to keep bugs alive in the system, given the treatment process is biological, said Olga Flores, an operator.

“We’re working to do the best we possibly can,” Flores said.

Copyright © 2004 The Facts