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CUPE wants P3 decision reversed

Four companies submit proposals for wastewater plant upgrade

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The president of CUPE local 2010 is hoping Whistler’s new council will reverse an earlier decision to partner with the private sector for upgrades to the sewage treatment plant.

"I’ve raised this with the new council and it will be looked at," Pete Davidson said confidently this week.

In January the previous council announced the resort municipality would be pursuing a public-private partnership, also known as a P3, as part of the $24 million upgrade to the wastewater treatment plant.

The private company, which has yet to be awarded the contract, would be charged with designing, building and operating the plant while the municipality would continue to own it and set the utility rates.

Last week four companies were selected, from eight that submitted qualifications, to prepare proposals for the job. Those companies are: American Water Canada, CH2M HILL Canada, EPCOR Water Services and Veolia Water Canada.

"You look at the people who are short-listed there," said Davidson. "If they get a toehold on our wastewater plant, their real goal is to get our water and water is the oil of the 21 st century. The ultimate prize is our water system."

He is resolute in his belief that should the P3 move ahead, the private company will eventually control Whistler’s water and set water rates.

CUPE represents workers at the sewage treatment plant. Those workers have been without a contract for more than two years.

This public/private model is not new but it is a growing trend said the municipality’s general manager of engineering and public works, Brian Barnett. He points to P3 operations in Banff, Kelowna and Jasper, among others. Still there are advocates and detractors of the model.

In this case the municipality believes the P3 will be more cost effective, more efficient and could raise environmental standards at the wastewater plant.

Davidson said he has not seen any documents to back up that claim and he believes the deal is being kept behind closed doors.

"It’s cloaked in secrecy and if it’s so good for our community why isn’t it open, why aren’t we hearing about it?" he asked.

Staff is preparing a report for council for their first working meeting on Dec. 19 to bring them up to date on the process.

"It’s council’s option whether we revisit (it) and staff are going to have to represent the rationale… (and) justify and explain the evolution of the decision making process," said mayor-elect Ken Melamed.

Though a lot of work has been done to date on the P3 arrangement, a contract has not yet been signed. Melamed said this council could change its mind.

"There are certainly options for decisions," echoed Barnett. "We have not entered into any contract.

"But there’s a considerable amount of work and confidence in the direction that we’ve taken."

That’s a thought that’s certainly on the new mayor’s mind, particularly in light of rising construction costs, which are still climbing from month to month. Another factor to consider is that moving forward with the P3 would mean the upgrades would be done sooner rather than later and getting the plant fixed is a priority. There are times when the wastewater treatment plant has trouble dealing with high flows and the upgrades are designed to fix the other more noticeable problem of the odour issue that blankets Function Junction on certain days.

"What it really comes down to is the timeline," said Melamed.

"If council was to change its mind now, a lot of the work that has been done to date would have to be re-done if we went with a conventional procurement method. One of the things that convinced council to go with the P3 was that the private sector was saying they could deliver in a much-shortened timeframe. If we were to undo what’s been done now and go with a traditional procurement model, we’d be a year and a half away at a minimum.

"It’s obviously a serious consideration."

Davidson believes there is a will on council to listen to some of CUPE’s concerns.

He said: "Definitely they campaigned on transparency in government. Let’s see it."

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