La Center scrambles to replace longtime wastewater plant supervisor


LA CENTER — It’s never easy to lose a longtime employee, but the recent resignation of La Center’s wastewater treatment plant supervisor came as a bit of a shock to leaders in the small, north Clark County city.

“I was surprised and certainly didn’t expect it,” La Center Mayor Greg Thornton says of receiving Sue Lawrence’s resignation from her position as head of the city’s wastewater treatment facility.

Lawrence, who has supervised La Center’s wastewater treatment facility for the past 11 years, resigned from her position last week, effective at the end of November. She says she has had a good run with the city and that Jeff Sarvis, La Center’s Public Works director, has been “a great supervisor,” but that she is leaving to pursue a private consulting business.

“I wanted to do some things that are a bit more than just the day-to-day operations,” Lawrence explained. “The city has done a lot for me and I totally and completely support the staff here at the plant … but I had some opportunities open up for me that would be good, long-term options for my career.”

Lawrence has 25 years’ worth of wastewater treatment plant experience and is the treasurer of the Northwest Membrane Operator Association. She said her new consulting business will help train new wastewater plant operators — employees who are in high demand right now in Washington and across the nation.

“There’s a lot of attrition of (wastewater treatment plant) operators,” Lawrence says. “People don’t look at wastewater as a glorious field … they take it for granted.”

To supervise a wastewater treatment plant in Washington state, employees must have earned their Level III certification, something that requires a combination of education and several years’ of on-site experience.

It’s never easy to lose a longtime employee, but the recent resignation of La Center’s wastewater treatment plant supervisor came as a bit of a shock to leaders in the small, north Clark County city. Photo by Mike Schultz
It’s never easy to lose a longtime employee, but the recent resignation of La Center’s wastewater treatment plant supervisor came as a bit of a shock to leaders in the small, north Clark County city. Photo courtesy of the city of La Center

The American Water Works Association reports that nearly half of all wastewater plant operators in the United States are set to retire within the next five years. And Lawrence says budget cuts have forced many cities to cut staff levels at their wastewater facilities, which means younger workers often don’t have the level of on-site work experience necessary to gain their Level III and higher certifications.

“The requirements to be a certified operator take time,” Lawrence says. “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, Thornton called city councilors together for an emergency workshop session on Mon., Nov. 14.

“We’re in an emergency situation in the city of La Center to continue on with operations at the wastewater treatment plant,” Thornton told councilors. “This is just the beginning of the process. The bigger issue is the long-term relationship, moving forward (for operating the plant), but we have an emergency situation and have to continue to operate the plant.”
Thornton later clarified that his use of the word “emergency” did not signify an actual emergency, but rather a state of having to act quickly to find a short-term solution for running the city’s wastewater treatment facility after Lawrence leaves at the end of November.

In an “emergency” situation, the city does not have to go through its regular bidding process, but can hire an interim operator or company to manage the facility until city councilors decide on a long-term solution.

“It’s something the city has to deal with, but we do have options,” Thornton says.

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.

Gary Young, a regional manager for CH2M, explained his company’s short-term and long-term services to La Center city councilors at the Nov. 14 work session. Although the city would need to go through a standard bidding process if councilors decide to partner with a private company like CH2M for long-term management at the wastewater treatment plant, councilors could decide to use the company as a short-term solution or, as Thornton says, as a “stop-gap measure.”

CH2M could provide certified people to run the plant in the short-term, giving La Center leaders a chance to mull their options for the long-term plant management.

Young told city councilors that the could partner with a firm like CH2M and still maintain ownership of the city’s wastewater facilities.

“You wouldn’t be privatizing,” Young explained. “You would still own the assets … we would provide operations, maintenance and management support.”

Although Young says CH2M does not like the term “contractors,” the company 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 … more are going out than are coming in through the ranks.”

Young added that, even if the city did find a qualified plant operator, they may find themselves in a similar situation a few years later.

“It’s tough to find someone with this certification and make sure they’re going to stay and be there in the long-term,” Young said. “You want to have some stability in your long-term services.”

If the city were to partner with CH2M, Young told councilors, it would be his problem, not theirs, if the certified plant supervisor moved on to a more lucrative opportunity.

“All of the labor obligations would be on my side,” Young said. “If someone left, guess what? That would be my problem, not yours. … It would be on me to find a replacement.”

Several La Center city councilors had questions after hearing the CH2M presentation. Councilor Liz Cerveny said she would like to get more information about the cost-savings of partnering with a private company for the short-term versus the long-term.

Councilor Joe Valenzuela said the city needed to look at all of its options, considering a possible revenue shortfall after the nearby Cowlitz tribal casino opens in April of 2017. He also said he was worried about existing staff at the wastewater plant, if the city should go out to bid and contract with a private company like CH2M. Young replied that his company tends to keep existing staff.

La Center Public Works Director Jeff Sarvis said at the end of the meeting that he did not consider the city’s situation to be an “emergency” and that he would like an opportunity to tell councilors why the situation was not as critical as Thornton had suggested.

“We’re not in an emergency situation,” Sarvis said. “We know what we’re doing … and I would tell you why, but I’m not getting the opportunity to do that.”

Thornton told Sarvis that he would be given an opportunity to talk to city councilors, and reiterated that the Nov. 14 work session was simply an opportunity for city leaders to gather information about what a private company like CH2M might be able to do for the city in the short-term and in the long-term.

“There will be lots of opportunities,” Thornton said. “This is just the beginning of the process.”

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