Privatization wasn't the answer for Bremerton

The idea of saving money and having a more efficiently run plant was something that appealed to the City of Bremerton in the mid-1980s, which is when the city decided to contract out the operation of its wastewater system to a private firm.

However, just about 10 years later, the city was doing what it could to wrestle control of the sewer system back into public hands.

Lynn Horton, former mayor of Bremerton who helped to bring the utility back under public control, said it was during her second year in office that she managed to regain control of the sewer system.

"We weren't happy with the way the plant was being operated," Horton said.

She noted that as far as users of the wastewater system were concerned there was no degradation of service, but there was a degradation in the condition of the plant during the time the private firm, not the same company the City of Sunnyside is looking at, held control.

"The condition of the plant wasn't to the level the city felt it needed to be," Horton said. "We needed to bring it back in house."

As for the argument that privatization will save cities money, Horton said in Bremerton's experience, yes the city did spend less money during the time the plant was operated privately. She added that the cost savings ended up coming at the detriment of the overall condition of the plant.

"It's a product of you get what you pay for," Horton said.

Horton said it was when the city brought control of the utility back to the city that a lot of money needed to be invested in the facility.

Pat Coxon, wastewater manager for the City of Bremerton, estimated that the city invested nearly $500,000 on just one of the 36 pump stations in their system when the city took back control of the wastewater system. He noted that the plant was new when the private firm first took over control.

Coxon said he feels that public utilities, like wastewater, aren't supposed to be operated for profit.

"It's not meant to make money," Coxon said.

Instead, he said the money that is made through the operation of the system needs to be reinvested in the system.

"They weren't putting the money back into the infrastructure, instead they were using it as a profit for the business," Coxon said.

He noted that another issue the city had with privatization was that of odor. According to Coxon, the city was sued over the odor coming from the wastewater plant area.

"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," Coxon said.

He said it was then that the city started making moves to get the wastewater system back under public control.

Despite not being happy with the privatization experience the City of Bremerton experienced, both Horton and Coxon believe that privatization can be successful.

Horton said she feels one of the keys to a private company successfully operating a wastewater system is to ensure that the project manager is from the city.

"There needs to be an individual whose sole function is to make sure the contract is strictly adhered to," Horton said.

She added that the contract itself needs to be very thorough. Horton said she also thinks that cities looking at privatization should sign no more than a five-year contract for service, or at least something that can be revisited that often to ensure that it's something the city is still happy with.

"Don't just put it on auto pilot and let it continue," Horton said.

Coxon said instead of cities going into privatization with the idea that they are going to save money, cities should look at it as a way to take some of the responsibilities a city has and redistributing them to a private firm. He noted that it gives the city one less thing to worry about.

"If you do that, I feel you can have success," Horton said.


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