Sewer Employees in Washington Accept Practices of Private Companies to Save $6.7 Million per Year 

By Eric Pryne
Seattle Times staff reporter

King County has negotiated new contracts with the unions representing waste-water workers, which County Executive Ron Sims says will save ratepayers money, empower employees and allow the county to run the program more like a private business.

The agreements could save the county at least $6.7 million a year, Sims said - about as much as it would have achieved by contracting with a private company to run the county's sewage-collection and treatment system.

"A government of the 21st century can't do business as usual," Sims said yesterday. He likened the new arrangement to a corporation spinning off a subsidiary and called it a model for other county departments.

Representatives of the unions - Service Employees International Union Local 6 and Teamsters Local 117 - joined Sims in making the announcement.

The three-year contracts and a related motion, which Sims collectively labeled his "Productivity Initiative," still need the approval of the Metropolitan King County Council. Councilman Kent Pullen, R-Kent, who chairs the committee that will review them, was not available for comment.

Under the initiative, elected officials will continue to establish policy and set goals for the program, but the 500 affected employees will have more flexibility in deciding how to meet them. That means no more micromanaging, Sims said. Distinctions between labor and management also will be diminished, he said.

Allen Alston, a safety specialist with the program, welcomed the changes. "It's hard to work when you're constantly bumping into the bureaucracy," he said.

But, in addition to greater responsibility, workers will assume greater risk. The initiative sets budget targets for the program that average $6.7 million a year in cost reductions. If savings exceed that amount, workers will receive half the excess. If the targets aren't hit, workers won't get any bonuses.

The wastewater program runs the county's big sewage-treatment plants at West Point and Renton.

The contracts come as some large cities around the country are turning their public-works departments over to the private sector. While Sims has not been an advocate of privatization, some on the County Council are.

Kathy Oglesby, Sims' labor liaison, said the initiative is another way of reaching the same goals that privatization supporters espouse.

Councilman Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, said he wasn't familiar with Sims' plan. But he said he likes the idea of letting government employees and the private sector compete to provide government services, an approach Sims' initiative doesn't follow.

Eric Pryne can be reached at 206- 464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com.