La Center City Council members will seek private partner for wastewater treatment plant

LA CENTER — City leaders in La Center have OK’d the first step in forming a private-public partnership at the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

On Mon., Feb. 13, city councilors authorized the publication of a request for proposals (RFP) to find companies willing to take over day-to-day operations and maintenance at the city-owned wastewater treatment plant.

If all goes according to plan, a private company could take over operations and maintenance at the city-owned wastewater treatment plant by July 1.

Paul Eisenhardt, of the Eisenhardt Group, a Port Townsend-based Washington firm that has helped other municipalities across the western United States find alternative avenues for managing their city-owned water, wastewater, electric and solid waste services, presented information about the proposed private-public partnership to the La Center City Council on Monday night.

The objective of the agreement, Eisenhardt said, is not “to dramatically reduce costs and therefore degrade quality over time,” but to maintain the city’s current and projected wastewater treatment plant costs and allow the city to prepare for its long-term growth and economic development.

“Ownership of the facilities remains with the city,” Eisenhardt explained. “The contract term is seven years with two three-year renewal options.”

Outsourcing the daily operations and maintenance at the La Center wastewater treatment plant first came up in early November, after longtime plant supervisor Sue Lawrence resigned her position to pursue a private consulting business.

Finding wastewater treatment plant employees who have the proper certification — in particular, the Level III certification required to run a treatment plant — can prove nearly impossible for many local jurisdictions.

“The requirements to be a certified operator take time,” Lawrence told ClarkCountyToday.com in November. “It takes a lot of time to build up that training and to move up through the certification process.”

Knowing the difficulties that other cities have had finding certified wastewater treatment plant operators, La Center’s Mayor Greg Thornton called city councilors together for an emergency workshop session in mid-November to discuss private-public partnership options.

To partner with a private company for long-term management at the wastewater treatment plant, the city first has to go through a regular bidding process.

The council’s decision on Monday to move forward with the RFP is the first step.

Included in the terms of the proposed RFP:

Length: The term of the contract would be seven years, starting in July of 2017, with provisions for two, three-year extensions.

Terminating the Contract: The agreement would come with a provision giving the city of La Center sole discretion for terminating the contract due to “convenience.” However, either the city or the contractor could end the agreement if the other party fails “to provide the  services and specified  performance of the contract agreement.”

Key Objectives: The city hopes to achieve specific goals through its possible private-public partnership at the wastewater treatment plant. Specifically, the city is seeking a private partner that can:

1.) provide high quality operations and maintenance at the plant “without significant cost increases for the current utility operation;”

2.) offer full-time staffing that keeps existing staff and offers equitable compensation, benefits and training packages;

3.) maintain best practices for operating  the wastewater treatment plant, the city’s most valuable asset;

4.) prepare for long-term growth in La Center and for expansion of the city’s wastewater treatment plant’s collection system and pump stations;

5.) maintain the city’s ownership of the facilities; and

6.) protect the community with benchmarks for things like performance and accountability worked into the contract agreement.

At a November meeting to discuss short-term management at the wastewater treatment plant, Gary Young, a regional manager for CH2M, a firm that has partnered with other cities, including the city of Vancouver, for similar private-public partnerships of city-owned utilities, told La Center city councilors that they had options.

“You can continue to self-service (the wastewater plant), but Grade III certified individuals are becoming harder and harder to find. Lots of people with this type of certification are retiring and there aren’t a lot of young people coming up,” Young said. “It’s tough to find someone with this certification and make sure they’re going to stay and be there in the long-term. You want to have some stability in your long-term services.”

Partnering with a private company, especially one with a much larger pool of qualified staff and bulk pricing options for the types of chemicals and equipment needed at a wastewater treatment plant, could provide the city with that type of stability, Young told the city council in November.

On Monday, Eisenhardt said the city would have safeguards guaranteeing certain levels of performance, cost efficiencies, liability coverage, insurance and termination provisions that allow the city the option of ending the contract with a fee before the seven years are up.

“There has never been a program my firm has been involved with that terminate prior to the contract (ending),” Eisenhardt added. “That’s because of the upfront work that’s done to make sure the city has what it needs.”

Eisenhardt and city staff are expected to bring a presentation back to the city council in late May with recommendations for a company that meets the city’s requirements. If the city council moves forward with the agreement in May, the private-public partnership could be in effect by July 1 of this year.

For more information, visit the city’s website at www.ci.lacenter.wa.us and click on “Minutes/Agenda” under the “City Council” tab at the top of the page. Then, click on the “Packets” link next to the Feb. 13 special meeting date.

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About The Author

Kelly Moyer has been reporting for community newspapers since the mid-1990s, including the Newport News-Times on the Oregon Coast; the Lewistown Sentinel, a daily newspaper in central Pennsylvania; the Gresham Outlook, Wilsonville Spokesman, Sherwood Gazette and South County Spotlight newspapers in the Portland metro area; and The Reflector newspaper in Battle Ground, Wash. She also is the former managing editor of Midwifery Today, an international magazine for birth professionals. Kelly, a University of Oregon alumnus and Pennsylvania native, lives with her family in Northeast Portland.

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