Schenectady Contract Provides New
Opportunities for Municipal Personnel

by Douglas Herbst, PSG

Schenectady Mayor Albert Jurczynski refers to it us “fear of the unknown.” Wastewater Plant Manager Paul LuFond characterizes it as “fear of change.” Whatever it was exactly there was plenty of it among the workers at the Schenectady wastewater treatment facility in 1991 when the city was establishing a public-private partnership. The workers spoke against the change, wrote letters and lobbied Even city management was, at the time, somewhat divided. Today, things are different.

Workers at Schenectady's wastewater treatment plant and others were up in arms when the city decided to establish a partnership with a private firm for plant operations and management back in 1991. Just recently, on the other hand, Schenectady's Mayor, City Council, and workers at the wastewater plant supported the continuation of this public-private partnership, resulting in a 5-year contract renewal. Lots have changed since 1991, basically all of it for the good. The once problem-plagued Schenectady treatment plant and biosolids composting plant are now model Facilities. Chronic odor problems have been addressed. City Council President Joe Notar says he hasn't been called with an odor complaint in more than five years. “The serious problems have been fixed and when there is an issue now, the private operator is very quick to respond.” in addition, the city has saved more than $2.5 million so far, union relations are excellent, and the former city workers who are working for the private firm are pleased with the arrangement.
That story should be encouraging for other municipalities considering establishing a public-private partnership for the operations and management of their water and wastewater facilities. Just as importantly, Schenectady's experience should also be encouraging for the municipal plant staffs currently working at these facilities.
Job security is the key question most municipal water or wastewater plant employees ask when first faced with the prospect of their city establishing a public-private partnership for facility operations.
Paul LaFond who was Senior Operations Supervisor at the Schenectady plant at the time the plant went to private operations, experienced first-hand the transition from public to private.
“I had concerns that my job was going to be abolished,” says LaFond. “I wasn't sure if my pay was going to be the same. I have a family, children I wasn't sure my benefits were going to be there,” But the pay and benefits ended up being as good or better, and with the change came new opportunities for growth and advancement with the private firm opportunities that most cities simply cannot provide.
Protecting Workers' Interests
Most people are leery of change, particularly when it may affect their livelihood. Municipal plant workers are certainly no exception. Like Paul LaFond most workers at the Schenectady wastewater plant were by-and-large against going over to the private sector.
The new private partner offered jobs to all existing plant workers, with equal or better pay and benefits.
But although the city and the private firm did what they could to allay worker fears, one-fourth of them decided to use their seniority to “bump” down into some other municipal department. Many of these workers have seen the positive changes take place at the plant over the past five years and have systematically submitted employment applications to work for the private firm.
“Of the 10 workers who decided to stay with the city, five currently have job applications on file with PSG,” says LaFond.
What caused them to change their minds? For one thing, it is a much more harmonious, attractive place to work. Enhanced training and career development programs have had a positive effect. All the workers at the plant now have their certification, except for one employee who is currently being trained. The plant is neat, well-maintained, well landscaped, and virtually odor-free — a far cry of what it was prior to establishing the public-private partnership. And employees have expanded opportunities for growth and advancement.
“You go over to the plant and you can see the pride in the place, and themselves, that the workers have,” says Mayor Jurczynski. “It's obvious to me that morale is much improved.”
Change Often Good
Project Manager LaFond is an excellent example of how and why attitudes have altered. He was an outspoken opponent of contract operations, in part because it represented change, which is not something he seeks. He was born and raised in Schenectady. He has worked at the plant for 18 years. When he goes into a local restaurant for lunch, they just bring him “the usual.”
LaFond was pleasantly surprised, however, at the changes that immediately started taking place at the Schenectady plant once the day-to-day responsibility for running it was assumed by the private firm.
“PSG brought in some really top-flight people to study the problems in addition to a plant manager with extensive composting experience,” says LaFond. “Together, we got control of the situation in a very short time.” The Schenectady facility is now a model for other plants and LaFond himself, besides being recently promoted to Project Manager, has become something of a composting guru. “We've had people come here from all over to study our composting operation,” he says.
LaFond has had a number of other professional opportunities, within the PSG company and outside, but he has declined them. For the time being, at least, he'll stick with “the usual.”