Wednesday, December 22, 2004
My fellow citizens of Sunnyside, I would like to take a moment to address the current proposals being contemplated for our community by our city government and council regarding the privatization of some of the services that the municipality has traditionally provided.
One of the discussions of privatization was in respect to the ambulance service in Sunnyside. However, it appears that proposal is no longer an issue. I have lived in Sunnyside long enough to remember the era of "Lenny and Squiggy," who ran the ambulance service in Sunnyside and had frequent medical mishaps. I remember all of the problems that occurred and that all of it ultimately led to the long term investment of a permanent and well-trained cadre of technicians we are fortunate to now have.
The current proposal of privatizing the water and sewer system may harbor an even greater potential for disaster. The privatization of the sewer service and water delivery is filled with problems that could cost this community dearly for years to come.
Currently, our municipality maintains the potable water delivery to recognized standards, governed by a variety of rules, regulations and laws. Over the last several years, the water system of the city has become increasingly complex with the addition of several wells and pumping systems. Fortunately for us, the city's water and sewer employees have simply grown along with it. Their knowledge of this water system-its flaws, weaknesses and strengths, or "institutional knowledge"-has a value that cannot be measured in dollars and cents. If the management and maintenance of these systems are taken over by a private company, it is quite likely that this knowledge will be quickly lost.
The difficulty for us appears in the fundamental difference between the philosophy of a municipality and of a private company. The motive of a municipality is service and maintenance. Naturally, the motive of a private company is the desire for profit. A private company will, by virtue of its goals, do everything possible to minimize its costs. However, the results will most likely be that maintenance will suffer, service reponse time will slow and repair work will be minimized. While the winning bidder may choose to employ those workers who currently maintain the system, with the permament drive to minimize costs, those knowledgeable persons would likely be replaced with minimum wage workers who have little or no familiarity of the system.
While a municipality must only charge those fees needed to generate sufficient revenue to maintain the system, a profit driven company will engage in whatever means are available to squeeze every dollar out of its business venture. That is simply a fact. While I do not have any generalized objections to a corporation making money, substituting a profit/cost motive for a service and maintenance philosophy in our community is probably not going to work very well. The request for fee increases to the citizens of this community will follow very quickly after contract signing if past performance is any indication of future actions in privatization schemes.
If a company's headquarters is in some foreign country or some distant place, our community may have a difficult time obtaining responsive action for negligence, malfeasance or neglect. If the company elects to avail itself of bankrupty protection, our citizens may wake up one morning to an unmanned water and sewer system, and those employees who can run and maintain the systems long since gone from our community.
If the current favored company's headquarters is in Vancouver, how will emergencies be handled? Will a broken water main pumping thousands of gallons of water have to be repaired by a crew dispatched from Vancouver? What will the response time be traversing the Columbia Gorge be in the middle of winter? I don't know the answer, and I am not anxious to be calling an 800 number on a Sunday night, only to get some answering machine.
Even with all of the potential problems adequately addressed and guaranteed through skilled contract drafting, what happens when the contract expires? The truth is that the private company could simply decide to pack up and leave. The city can then take back the management of the system, only to find pipes, valves, pumps, meters and any of the other associated equipment in disrepair. The repairs that have been done, completed with the most inexpensive components available. The city would then have virtually no one available with a good understanding of these systems. We would then be required to spend huge sums of money to return the once working system to some semblance of reliability. This means that whatever savings were originally contemplated would become a distant financial memory.
While there are some success stories with privatization of public utilities, the assumed benefit for our community associated with his venture should be judged with the potential for problems. Why go down a road strewn with potholes and risks?
The current cost of maintaining our water system and sewage treatment may be high, but the cost of taking unnecessary risks may be far higher. Without knowing what stage our city government is currently in with this proposal, I would also forward the notion to all of the citizens here in Sunnyside that any such sweeping change to the basic structure of our municipality should not be imposed by our city government or city council, but should come about through a vote by the citizens after study and debate, as we will ultimately have to bear the cost of any incapacity or neglect and the inconvenience of a weakened and debilitated infrastructure.
. Douglas Garrison is an attorney who has a successful law practice in Sunnyside.