La Center leaders discuss outsourcing management, operations responsibilities at city’s publicly owned wastewater treatment plant

LA CENTER — Three months after losing their full-time wastewater treatment plant supervisor, city leaders in La Center are meeting to discuss outsourcing the publicly owned plant’s operations and maintenance responsibilities.

The La Center City Council and Mayor Greg Thornton will hold a special meeting at 6 p.m., Mon., Feb. 13, at City Hall, 214 E. 4th St., La Center, to discuss sending out a formal request for proposals.

Outsourcing the plant’s management and operations responsibilities was something that came up in early November, after longtime plant supervisor Sue Lawrence resigned her position to pursue a private consulting business.

La Center City Council is holding a special meeting on Mon., Feb. 13, to discuss sending out a request for proposals (RFP) regarding outsourcing the operations and maintenance responsibilities at the city-owned wastewater treatment plant
The city of La Center may enter into a seven-year agreement with a private contractor to take over the day-to-day operations and maintenance responsibilities at the city’s publicly owned wastewater treatment plant, shown here. Photo by Mike Schutz

Losing a supervisor, especially one like  Lawrence who agrees to stick around for a while to give you time to adjust and find a replacement, normally wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But in the world of wastewater treatment, finding 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.

One of those options, as the councilors discovered at the Nov. 14 emergency work session, is to turn operations of the wastewater treatment facility over to a company like CH2M Hill (CH2M), an Oregon-based engineering and operations management firm that manages the day-t0-day operations at 22 water and wastewater plants throughout the Pacific Northwest.

At the beginning of 2016, CH2M took over operations management at the city of Vancouver’s two wastewater treatment plants and is contracted to manage the city’s 44-million-gallon-per-day wastewater facilities for the next 10 years.

La Center City Council is holding a special meeting on Mon., Feb. 13, to discuss sending out a request for proposals (RFP) regarding outsourcing the operations and maintenance responsibilities at the city-owned wastewater treatment plantPartnering with a firm like CH2M doesn’t mean the city is privatizing its publicly owned wastewater treatment plant. Rather, the city would still own the assets and the private company would provide all support and personnel related to operating, maintaining and managing the plant.

To partner with a company like CH2M for long-term management at the wastewater treatment plant, the city first has to go through a regular bidding process.

Monday night’s special meeting will discuss the request for proposals (RFP) that starts that process.

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.

If the city council agrees on Monday to send out the RFP, a draft timeline shows a due date for proposals of April 12 with a city staff report and recommendation to council in mid-May. If all goes according to plan, the private vendor could take over operations and maintenance responsibilities at the city’s wastewater treatment plant by July 1.

At its mid-November meeting with representatives from CH2M, city councilors asked about the benefits of entering into such a partnership.

Gary Young, a regional manager for CH2M, said his company, if they win the bidding process, would essentially be contracted by the city to oversee all of the wastewater plant’s day-to-day operations, including all of the staffing and staff-related insurance and benefit costs. With 150 certified operators, more than 400 engineers and the ability to purchase things like wastewater treatment chemicals in bulk, CH2M is well positioned to take over the operations and management responsibilities at the plant, Young told the councilors.

“You have options,” Young added. “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. … 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.”

For more information about the meeting on Mon., Feb. 13, or to read the entire proposed RFP, 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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