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City to retain control: New plan for plant will result in loss of three positions

If a private company can operate the treatment plant for less, why can't the city?

City Manager John Chattin rhetorically posed this question on Monday as he recommended that the city of Bemidji continue to operate its Wastewater Treatment Facility, but do so more efficiently.

"If People Service can do it, I believe we can do it," Chattin said.

The city of Bemidji, at its request, has received four proposals from private companies interested in taking over operation of the treatment plant. The city of Bemidji now spends nearly $1 million a year operating the treatment plant, which employs eight full-time employees.

If the city were to contract with People Service Inc., the favored company by city staff, Bemidji could save about $100,000 annually, according to council documents.

The biggest difference as proposed by the private firms is the elimination of full-time employees. People Service has proposed a five-employee team at the treatment plant.

"The reality is, if the private sector can run it with five (full-time employees), we can do it, too," Chattin said.

The City Council voted unanimously in December to solicit proposals from private companies that might have an interest in running the facility. The proposals were expected to offer a comparison on the cost of having a private firm operate the plant versus the city expenditures of doing so - and to assess the city's efficiency of operations.

"The (requests for proposal) did exactly ... what we hoped they would do," Chattin said.

The proposals showed that the city could operate the treatment plant more efficiently, he explained.

In order to meet the numbers proposed by private firms, Chattin proposed the following changes for the treatment plant:

E Reduce staffing from eight to five full-time employees.

E Eliminate the chemist position.

E Reopen the union contract and amend it to allow for eight-hour shifts and on-call provisions.

E Expand job descriptions to allow for cross-training needed to operate with fewer full-time employees.

E Replace antiquated and inoperable control systems to allow for more efficient operations.

E Negotiation with the union so layoffs would be based on operational needs and not necessarily on seniority.

The City Council was receptive to Chattin's suggestion during Monday's work session as it voted unanimously to direct staff to continue moving forward with Chattin's plan.

"Sometimes when you contract out all of the services such as this, it may be less expensive at the beginning, but you may rack up more costs slowly but surely," said Mayor Richard Lehmann.

The situation could be similar to one in which a consumer purchase a less expensive generic item that is supposed to be comparable to a national brand, but you find yourself needing to replace it sooner, he explained.

An opportunity to change the direction of the treatment plant, which opened in 1985, was recently presented when plant Superintendent Tim Whiting announced his retirement, effective May 2, Chattin said.

City Engineer Craig Gray said the city will focus on hiring a new superintendent who will be able to incorporate more computer programs and develop an annual capital improvement plan, maintenance management plants and automated control systems.

"We need to get updated; we need to get current," Gray said.

The use of automated control systems and more alarms will assist the city in being able to operate the treatment staff with fewer employees with fewer hours each week, city staff said.

People Service recommended that five employees work a combined 50 hours a week (the second-place firm, Veolia, proposed four employees working 42-44 hours a week). The treatment plant currently is staffed 16 hours on weekdays, 10 hours each weekend day and eight hours on holidays.

Councilor Nancy Erickson asked how the plant would continue to function well while decreasing that much the amount of time it is staffed.

The response was that improved technology would partially make up the difference. Additionally, an automated alarm system would be set up to ensure that on-call employees would be contacted if a problem was detected.

"Long-term, the city and its residents are better served if we own and operate that plant ourselves," Chattin said.

Chattin already has met with treatment plant staff to discuss the potential changes. He also has met with Bob Paine, the union representative of plant workers through the International Union of Operating Engineers - Local 49.

No issue has yet come up that Paine believes cannot be addressed, Paine said.

The treatment plant now has eight full-time employees, including the superintendent, a chemist, a mechanic, a maintenance worker and four utility operators.

Chattin has proposed a staff that would consist of a superintendent and four cross-trained workers.

"We may get stymied along the way, but I think that should be our first effort," Chattin said.

While he hopes to evaluate the existing workers and fill the proposed positions based on operation needs and not by seniority, Chattin said that will be a negotiation with the union.

The current mechanic at the treatment plant, Dan Bock, has resigned to pursue other interests, so at least two existing employees have plans to soon leave the plant, Chattin noted.