The Ottumwa Courier

July 9, 2013

Staff, union troubled by thought of privatization

By CHELSEA DAVIS Courier staff writer
Ottumwa Courier

---- — OTTUMWA — The idea of privatizing Ottumwa’s Water Pollution Control Facility struck a nerve with its staff and union representatives.

The city council unanimously shot down a request to hire H.R. Green to look at the pros and cons of contracting out operations at the Water Pollution Control Facility versus continuing as is with city staff. The facility has been without a superintendent for 18 months with current staff picking up the position’s responsibilities.

Councilman Brian Morgan originally proposed the idea, though by the end of the debate at Monday’s work session, he had resigned to the fact that the motion would not pass.

“I wanted to make sure we have someone else looking at everything that wasn’t going to benefit one way or the other,” he said. “To me, this is just the responsible thing to do.”

But Councilman Mitch Niner asked, “if it’s not broke, why do we got to try to fix it, folks?”

He said he doesn’t understand why the city would look at contracting out services when a current employee is taking the test to obtain the Grade IV Wastewater Treatment Plant Operators Certificate this month, a requirement for the superintendent position.

When WPCFs are contracted out, he said, it’s because they’re outdated and running on fines — “and we’re not doing either one.”

“I’m not interested in using the employees down there as a bargaining chip to figure out what to pay the superintendent,” he said. “It doesn’t take a scholar to figure out that [the position] is a little low on pay and is probably the reason we’re not getting applicants. Do you realize that entities across this nation would just die for a facility like we have and a staff like we have? And we’re willing just to throw it all away? It just amazes me.”

Union members packed council chambers to voice their distaste for the council’s consideration of the proposal.

Dale Walter, union representative for WPCF employees, was concerned that the facility would eventually be entirely privatized.

“The accountability is a huge issue with [a third party],” Walter said. “We have a great group of employees down there, a lot over 20 years, who know their job and have been doing their job without a supervisor down there for quite some time.”

Steve Siegel, president of the Southern Iowa Labor Council, AFL-CIO, agreed that the proposal needed to be voted down immediately.

“As far as privatizing the whole place, the only savings would be off employees’ backs,” Siegel said. “You could try to keep wages the same, but over time they would decline. Certainly pension and retirement would be considerably less. Health insurance, vacation, all sorts of benefits would be greatly diminished. You’ve got a system and employees that work. Why risk bringing in another company? Who knows what they’re going to do with it. You would lose control of the facility and the ability to make changes.”

Dick Damm, also a member of the SILC, was in disbelief.

“I can’t believe the city’d even think about taking wages and benefits and throwing them out the door,” Damm said. “I hope to hell this don’t happen here.”

Councilman Bob Meyers said there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that WPCF employees are excellent, “but there are requirements, both federal and state, that have to be met.”

“Why wouldn’t I ask for H.R. Green, the professionals, to at least come up with what would that proposal be, even though I personally think probably hiring a superintendent would be the way to go?” he said.

Councilman Jeremy Weller said the thought of contracting out the entire facility made him uneasy.

“But if you take an aspect of it and contract that part of the service out and save money, then why wouldn’t we at least entertain the idea?” Weller said.

But he said he was disappointed to see this item on the agenda, saying the city should have sent out proposals itself, rather than paying $4,000 for a consulting firm to do the same thing.

“We need a backup, a ‘Plan B,’” he said. “The DNR is on our backs on when are we going to get a full-time Grade IV operator of the facility. Unless we add about $30,000 to the salary posted last time, we’re not even going to come close.”

Councilman J.R. Richards said he wants to see if a Grade IV-certified superintendent can be secured this month without proceeding with Morgan’s proposal.

Mayor Frank Flanders said he’s never been a fan of privatization of government services.

“...right now the preponderance of evidence is really strong that any attempt to privatize would not be a benefit,” he said.

To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to @ChelseaLeeDavis.