OTTUMWA — The next step in securing a superintendent for the Water Pollution Control Facility all hangs on whether the interim superintendent passes an upcoming exam.
Former WPCF superintendent Bob Bruett officially retired in April 2012. The facility is responsible for treating wastewater before returning it to the Des Moines River.
But Kam Reeves — who has worked at the WPCF for nearly 18 years — has received written approval from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources "to sign all reports and to basically operate the plant," said City Attorney Joni Keith.
"[Bruett] ... was on a separate contract with the city after he retired to continue to work and assist [Reeves]," Keith said. "Then he officially retired in April 2012, but he was assisting with the plant after retirement as well."
While the IDNR has "full confidence" in Reeves' abilities, Keith said, the problem is that he does not yet have a Grade IV certification, which would give him the license to become a wastewater treatment operator. Reeves will take the Grade IV test on July 30.
"DNR wants someone with a Grade IV in place, but they've given us a lot of leeway because they're very comfortable and confident in Kam Reeves' ability to operate that plant," she said.
In the position's job description, applicants must obtain the Grade IV certification within one year of employment at Ottumwa's WPCF, though Keith said that "because of the difficulty with the test, we are looking at those with Class IV certification now."
Recently, though, city staff began to wonder if it would save the city a substantial amount of money to privatize at least a portion of the facility.
That's why the issue was raised at Monday's City Council work session. Some councilmen wanted to obtain proposals from consultants who could compare the cost savings of the two options: privatize operations or continue as is.
"The thought was, we really need a specialist to assist us in obtaining those RFPs so we know what questions to ask and what to look for in a possible agreement with a private company," Keith said. "Because that position is open, several council members are just looking at what our options are and privatization was an option. But just because we're asking for numbers does not mean they would've went in that direction. They wanted to put the issue to rest, one way or another."
Reeves said he doesn't believe privatizing the facility could save the city a significant amount of money.
"It's been looked at a couple times," he said. "In 2010, [Veolia Water] did not submit any numbers for what the savings would be, but they actually said it would not be a significant savings [to privatize operations] and would not be something they'd be interested in."
Veolia Water provides contract operator services for water and wastewater facilities, running more than 200 facilities in North America, according to the company website. Veolia representatives did not return requests for comment as of press time Wednesday.
Reeves declined to comment on the City Council's discussion Monday night.
Most likely, the city will open up the hiring process again, Keith said.
"We clearly have to get a superintendent in place with a Grade IV," she said. "We're running out of time with the DNR to get that done. They're encouraging us very strongly to get a superintendent in place, but it's not easy to find superintendents. That Grade IV is a very difficult certification to obtain and there are a very limited number of Grade IV operators in the state, so I'm thinking we may have to increase the salary to be able to attract someone."
In last fall's round of advertising for the position, the city also advertised out of state, but was only able to attract two applicants. The job description included a salary of $60,000 to $80,000.
"To be able to attract a Grade IV, to move their family basically, we think we probably will have to re-look at our salary scale," she said.
The city did offer the position to one of the two applicants, but he turned down the offer, stating that the salary was too low.
The entire idea of privatization "is a touchy subject," she said.
"I don't think there was any intention by looking at the issue to create any unrest with our employees," she said. "Kam Reeves has done an excellent job in Bob Bruett's place and we have excellent, excellent employees."
The facility currently operates with 14 employees. The addition of a superintendent would put it at a full staff of 15.
"We have excellent employees, we have a state-of-the-art facility that's been very much updated, so some of the cost savings that a private company could come in and do we've already done," she said. "So there's a question whether that would actually save the city money, but whether we pursue or ask for proposals, we won't know for sure."
— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to @ChelseaLeeDavis.