Ken DeLorenzo, executive director of RI Council 94 AFCSCME, asked the Budget Commission to keep the city's drinking water plant public, offering to negotiate to match savings they'd get by privatizing.
The Budget Commission agreed to hear them out, and also delayed a vote on sending a Request for proposal (RFP) out for a new water treatment plant contractor.
Budget Commission Chairman Bill Sequino said an e-mail he received from North Smithfield Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton asked to consult with the Budget Commission on the decision. The water treatment plant supplies water to North Smithfield, among other northern RI communities. He said the delay on approving an RFP would allow them to address her questions and comments first.
The new plant will be built on 18 acres behind Bernon Heights School purchased by the town from Roland Michaud Dec. 18, according to MyWoonsocket.com.
The city was under a Department of Environmental Management deadline to upgrade the city's facilities, improving the quality of drinking water and eliminating pollutants discharged into the Blackstone River by March 2013, but a new consent agreement signed May 30 gives the city until 2016.
As it happens, a memo from DPW Director Sheila McGauvran notes approving an RFP doesn't lock them into any of the four possible design/construction options: Design Bid Build (DBB); Design Build (DB) GMAX Design Build (DB) or Design Build Operate (DBO).
The previous City Council voted for a DBO, which would privatize the plant, but the current council has voted for a DBB or DB.
McGauvran recommended issuing the RFP for a DBO contract, but she wrote that approviing the RFP would allow a better analysis of the costs, and no commitment. "We are confident that tremendous saving will be generated as we saw overwhelmingly with the DBO at our city's wastewater treatment plant," she wrote. But, if the city decides it's not in its best interest, "...we always reserve the right to reject all proposals and proceed accordingly."
"I have to question why the City of Woonsocket would want to privatize the drinking water operation," DeLorenzo said. He noted that one possible reason was cost savings, but, the private company only appears cheaper because they use fewer people in their proposal, he said, which is unrealistic. However, "The union would always welcome negotiating with the city," he said, if it meant the water treatment plant would remain in the public domain.
DeLorenzo said the union could operate the new plant better and more efficiently, for the same cost as a private contractor. "You would not know this because you have not spoken with the union officials," he said.
Privatization takes away the city's control of costs, of the water itself, control of the operation and the services and financial information of the contractor, he said.
The Budget Commission voted to table the vote on the RFP until they could speak with Hamilton, giving the union time to begin negotiations with Dan Kinder, the negotiator assigned to the union-city talks on concessions.
"We're a little more encouraged than we were before the meeting," DeLorenzo said.
Dan Darling, president of Local 670, said they weren't approached about cost savings, but they're willing to talk to make sure the new water plant is public. Woonsocket residents best interests lay in keeping it public, too, he said, since a private operator would work for a profit. "We work for the rate payer," Darling said.