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Privatization raises questions for S'side public works crew

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The owner of Harold's Rentals and Repair is using the reader board outside of his business to ask Sunnyside City Council members to reconsider privatizing the city's water and wastewater services. City council members will conduct a study session on the issue Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 6:30 p.m. at the Sunnyside Law and Justice Center.

Mentioning the word privatization in front of the Sunnyside public works crew is something that incites a number of reactions and brings with it an endless number of concerns, from the possible degradation of personal service to just how the city hopes to save money.

It's the public works crew that will be directly effected if the City of Sunnyside moves ahead with plans to privatize the city's water and wastewater divisions.

Dinnie Henderson, a member of the public works crew for the past 25 years who plans on retiring in May, said the crew has taken time to study the effects of privatization. He noted that they have even been given a chance to look over the first draft of the contract the city has been working on for Veolia Water, the company the city is in negotiations with for the privatization project.

Henderson said looking at the first draft of the contract there are changes coming down the pike that regardless of whether or not the city privatizes will likely get done. However, he noted that there were other changes that make no sense. He noted that the draft of the contract he saw allowed for the telemetry systems in the water and sewer departments to be completely switched out. Henderson said the telemetry systems were just installed six years ago.

"It should be good for the next few years without spending the money to put in a system that Veolia is familiar with," Henderson said.

He noted that he has also heard the argument that Veolia will be able to purchase chemicals for the water systems for less money than the city does now. Henderson said if you look at the amount of money budgeted for chemicals, that isn't something that takes a large chunk of change. Henderson said it is his understanding that the company is proposing a chemical change. He noted that they are proposing changing from a chemical mix that requires two people to handle the materials to one that can be done with only one person. Henderson said although the one-man chemical costs more to purchase, it would save on manpower.

Henderson said he, along with other members of the crew feel that most of the cost savings the city is talking about when it comes to privatization of the water and wastewater systems will come when the crew is cut back from 11 people to eight.

At this point, Henderson said it is his understanding that if the city moves forward with privatization when he retires there will still be two people left on the crew who will find themselves no longer working on the water crew. He said the city has noted that those two people will likely be absorbed into the streets and parks divisions of the public works department.

"So nobody will actually lose their job," Henderson said.

Henderson said he and other members of the public works crew are concerned that cutting the number of people on the water and sewer crews, with everyone still working 40 hours a week, will mean community members will end up paying the ultimate price. He said he's scared that when community members call in with water concerns they will be put on the back burner just because there are fewer people on the job.

Henderson said it's reaching out and helping community members that is the price of doing business in Sunnyside. He said when people call with concerns, like the possibility of a water leak or meters that are broken, it's the public works crew that goes out to lend a helping hand.

"We try to help because we have the experience," Henderson said. "I don't think a private company will provide those same free services that we do...a private company doesn't come in here to be nice because they like Sunnyside."

Another public works employee said he's concerned that the private company won't take the time to maintain the city's sewer pipes the way the crew does now. He noted that currently the city's entire sewer system is jetted out every year. He noted there are also pipes in the system that receive regular attention because of the tendency they have to back up if not jetted regularly. He added that if the private company coming in doesn't maintain the system the same way, there is a high likelihood of there being more back-up problems, problems he is curious as to who will be responsible for.

A different member of the crew said he is concerned that new people coming in aren't going to be able to learn all of the special jobs in the Sunnyside Public Works Department. He noted that there are a lot of different aspects of the job that can take years to learn.

Kevin Roberts, a member of the crew, said his major concern when it comes to privatization is that he doesn't feel the city is doing everything it can to get information on the proposal out to the public.

"The city can't think they have gotten the information out to the taxpayers, to the public, as to how this is going to work," Roberts said.

Roberts noted that it's all in the details. He said in other communities that have privatized the private company doesn't do any work outside of the plant gates.

"This is a service based job and it takes employees to make this work," Henderson added, noting that Sunnyside doesn't have a large public works crew. According to Henderson, the Sunnyside public works crew is the same size today as it was in 1978, even though the city has grown tremendously since then.

Overall, the city crew hopes people will make sure they attend the Feb. 22, Sunnyside City Council study session to learn more about privatization and to voice their opinions on the topic.

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