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Councillor fights privatization of sewer plant

Has "very, very serious concerns"

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Despite attempts by Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden to reverse a past council decision, plans are still moving ahead to privatize Whistler’s sewage treatment plant.

"I have very, very serious concerns about the private operation of our sewage treatment plant," she said at Monday’s meeting.

"Maybe this is one of those cases where there ought to be a new direction."

Though she recognized it’s demoralizing for staff to do an about face on their plans, which have been underway for more than two years, she suggested that council could change its tack.

But she could not get support from her colleagues. Instead they voted to move forward with the privatization plans by taking them to an open house for community feedback in the New Year.

Whistler needs a $25 million upgrade to the plant, which is located across the highway from Function Junction. The upgrades are designed not only to alleviate the odour problems but also improve environmental standards in the discharge of treated sewage water into the Cheakamus River.

Staff is proposing a P3 – a public private partnership.

In this case a private operator would be hired to not only design and build the upgrades but also operate the plant through a 20-year contract with the Resort Municipality of Whistler. The RMOW would still own the plant and be in charge of getting the necessary permits.

Chief among Wilhelm-Morden’s concerns was the question as to why Whistler would give up its ability to make public policy for the next 20 years in regard to monitoring its effluent.

Though she conceded there might be cost savings with a private operator, particularly by combining the design, build and operations under one company, she said that wasn’t a good enough reason.

She worried that Whistler would not be able to force the private operator to keep on top of the latest technology, because it could be costly, and so Whistler’s wastewater treatment could quickly become outdated.

She also worried about the impact a private operator could have on the municipal employees working at the sewage plant who are a part of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

"She raised some valid points," said Pete Davidson, president of CUPE local 2010 who was at the meeting for the presentation.

"Twenty years is a long time. Do we want to give away our rights for 20 years? I think there’s a lot more questions to be asked about this project."

Among his concerns is that a private operator won’t be able to guarantee pensions for CUPE members or any job security.

But Steve Hollett of Partnerships B.C., a P3 organization, had an answer to almost every concern. He explained that many of the concerns could be written into the contract with the private operator.

"You can do whatever you want in that contract," he said. "Keep in mind that you own the plant."

But he said by combining the design, build and the operation of the plant under one operator, there will be efficiencies and with efficiencies comes cost savings. Those cost savings could be in the range of 15 to 20 per cent or up to $8 million.

Whistler has a $12.6 million grant for the upgrades.

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