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City manager recommends privatizing water system

Sunnyside City Manager Bob Stockwell's office Thursday afternoon released a report recommending the city contract with Veolia Water to provide oversight of Sunnyside's water system. But, a couple of Council members are waiting to hear from the public before making their decision.

The Sunnyside City Council will be meeting twice in the next week and a half to decide the matter of privatizing the city's water services. Council has been looking at privatizing the city's water system for some time. The key meeting for both Council members and the community will take place in Council chambers Tuesday, Feb. 22, beginning at 6:30 p.m. At this meeting, Stockwell will present his recommendations to Council. The public will also be given ample opportunity to provide public comment at the Feb. 22 meeting, as well as the regular Council meeting on Monday, Feb. 28, according to Mayor Ed Prilucik. Prilucik encourages interested community members to attend the special Council workshop on Feb. 22 to provide public comment. Sunnyside's mayor said because of a full slate on the Feb. 28 regular Council meeting all residents may not have the opportunity to speak their mind because of time constraints.

"It is very important to hear what the public has to say," said Prilucik.

Touching briefly on Stockwell's report to Council, the city manager cites that training and retaining city staff has become increasingly harder in light of how difficult, changing and complexing municipal water operations have become.

"This industry has grown to the point where there are now several national and multi-national firms offering services," Stockwell writes in his report. "This expertise includes a working knowledge of every modern water and wastewater system being used throughout the world."

Stockwell details in his report the increasing expenses the city will incur meeting new upgrade requirements in the water department and paying off debt associated with such items as the court ordered upgrade of Sunnyside's wastewater treatment plant by April 2007.

Based on an analysis of current and future operations for operating the city's water and wastewater systems, Stockwell recommends entering into a privatization contract with Veolia Water.

Veolia Water has proposed a five-year operating contract at an annual cost of $1,153,988, or a 10-year contract at an annual cost of $1,113,920. The contract may be terminated at the conclusion of five years at the discretion of the city. Stockwell writes in his report that with the 10-year contract the city can see a potential savings of $400,000. A five-year contract could see the city saving in the neighborhood of $200,000 in operating costs.

Veolia Water proposed in the contract it could operate the facility using nine employees, hiring eight current city employees and utilizing their own project manager. Stockwell said in the report the city's water department has 11 employees. One of the three employees who wouldn't have jobs with Veolia is retiring and the other two will be reassigned to other departments, if the contract is approved.

"We are confident that contracting with Veolia Water will provide the city with a robust ability to maintain our water and wastewater operations well into the future with access to fully certified operators, up-to-date analysis of all operations, and cost effective capital improvements," wrote Stockwell.

Councilman Paul Garcia is anxious to hear the comments of the public on the privatization issue before he makes a decision. Garcia said he always tries to listen to the members of the community when making a decision.

"That is very crucial," said Garcia.

Garcia said he would have liked to have seen more information get out to the public about privatization. Garcia said he feels not enough information was made public, which is why he is hoping for a large crowd at the coming meetings to provide constructive comments.

"I would hope the community comes out enmasse," said Garcia. "The citizens should be there because this is their future."

Garcia said there is a lot of information to be taken in by everyone involved with the privatization issue.

"I do not want to make a decision where we don't have enough input from the citizens," said Garcia. "This is a crucial decision."

Councilman Jim Restucci feels the city should look at ways to save residents money.

"For every city that has had a bad experience (with privatization), there is one that has had a good one," said Restucci. "Fiscal responsibility demands that one look at all avenues. Even if I did feel that privatization is wrong, and I don't necessarily feel that way, I should not allow that to cloud my judgment when it comes to the financial health of the city."

Restucci hopes community members will turn out at the meetings later this month. Restucci says he will listen to all comments intensely before making his decision.

"I will make the decision that I feel is best for the city," said Restucci.

Councilman Bruce Ricks is going into the next couple of meetings with an open mind. Ricks said, though, it is in the best interest of the community for the Council to look at more effective cost operations within the city.

"We are obligated to always look at best practices that benefit the people we serve," said Ricks. "I am obligated to look, listen and make a choice that will best benefit the whole of the citizens."

Ricks said he will be paying strict attention to the information provided at the next couple of meetings to make his decision on privatization, weighing the pros and the cons of the issue.

Prilucik said he is going into the meetings with an open mind as well, because privatization is an important decision facing the community. Prilucik is hoping the community comes out in droves to the meeting.

"It is very important to hear what the citizens have to say," said Prilucik. "We need statements from the public on whether or not they support this. I don't make up my mind until after the public has had a chance to speak because there are a lot of people out there smarter than I am."

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