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Places and Passionate Perceptions about P3s

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So I’m telling the Hamilton, Ontario wastewater treatment plant manager that I’d heard from a P3 critic speaking in Whistler last week about the troubles Hamilton had when a public-private partnership (P3) took them over. Three spills in five years before the city nixed their contract, right?

"Excuse me, ma’am," the plant manager says, "but this is Hamilton, OHIO. USA."

Oh.

"I’m racking my brain about this e-mail from British Columbia," he goes on. "Now how in the world? What’s this all about?"

Never one to leave a journalistic stone unturned and since he’s calling me on his dime I ask if any thought had ever been given to switching Hamilton, Ohio’s wastewater treatment plant to a pubic-private partnership model?

"Quite a few thoughts," he says, explaining that after their main industries, two local pulp and paper mills ran into trouble there was considerable talk about the possibility of running the municipal plant as a P3.

"There was talk of the mills closing up and leaving town (leaving the city with depleted tax revenue) and we were looking at all the options," he said. "And we thought, well, (he pronounces it "whale") privatization is the way we’d have to go. But it never came to a vote."

Instead, the city-run plant, which handles about 15 million gallons in a 24-hour day with three swing shifts, tightened its belt.

"We had our own internal group of employees and we looked at everything we could do to save money and funds," he explains. "We reduced our work force through downsizing and attrition. We just did everything wisely, how we purchased chemicals and things."

Maintenance costs were reduced when staff took on extra duties – "they all kind of hunkered down," – eliminating idle time and increasing efficiency.

"They (staff) are always working and accomplishing things and did it so successfully I don’t think anyone could compete with what we provide," he said. "We got it low enough that our budget is to the point I don’t know anyone could come in and do it cheaper than we’re doing it."

Public-private partnerships, a hybrid government infrastructure that off-loads traditional government responsibilities to private corporations, is in increasing favour with some provinces, most notably British Columbia. Contracts in this province for everything from health-care workers to job placement services are handed out, ostensibly for the purposes of reducing costs by increasing efficiency.

But critics (like journalist and former Council of Canadians board member Murray Dobbin, who recently spoke in Whistler) say there are long-term repercussions of public-private partnerships, like higher costs and less public accountability.

"Health(-related) services to the community should not be subjected to the profit model," Dobbin said in a talk at Spruce Grove Field House last week. He points to others who share his concerns, like Barry O’Neill, president of B.C. chapter of Canadian Union of Public Employees.

"We want our water and wastewater to be publicly owned and managed," O’Neill, said recently. "We need to organize as we’ve never organized before to keep public water and wastewater for all generations to come."

Whistler’s municipal engineers are in favour of running the wastewater treatment plant as a P3. But Council of Canadians’ Maude Barlow says Whistler should keep control of water and wastewater in the community. She says Whistler could be subject to new rules the World Trade Organization is drafting that would ease "burdensome" qualifications, licensing requirements and standards international companies would have to meet.

Although Whistler insists there will be no leap from a wastewaster P3 to drinking water P3, one has to wonder. In an op ed piece for the Globe and Mail last fall former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed wrote about water’s importance, ultimately perhaps a greater importance than oil.

"I predict that the United States will be coming after our fresh water aggressively within three to five years," he wrote. "We must prepare, to ensure we aren't trapped in an ill-advised response. It would be a major mistake for Canada to handle this issue badly."

Perhaps the answer can be found in Hamilton, Ohio’s response to a public-private partnership possibility. Take a look at what a P3 provides and then resolve to do it better.

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