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Council Plans To Fix Water Plant
January 31, 2001

Richmond facility in need of repairs; council to decide whether to sell or to invest 

By Shawn Masten

RICHMOND -- The city once again is set to embark on a plan to divest itself of part, if not all, the responsibility of operating its aging waste water treatment plant. 

The City Council tonight will decide whether to spend up to $300,000 for a consultant to help city officials devise a plan to maintain and repair the Canal Boulevard facility for the next 20 years. The council also will consider whether to seek proposals from public or private agencies to either partner with the city or take over the ailing plant. 

The action comes with the 40-year-old building in need of millions of dollars in improvements that could prompt sewer rate increases beyond those already imposed on residents and businesses. It also comes amid labor union pressure to keep the operation in-house. 

If the council opts to hire the consultant, it would be Richmond's first introduction to "managed competition," a system in which city employees and departments are forced to compete against private contractors to handle the business of the city. 

"It doesn't make any sense to keep on doing what we've been doing," said Councilman Tom Butt, who has been critical of the city's management of the plant. "Nobody was tending that store at all." 

The council, spurred by Butt's complaints, in 1999 approved annual sewer rate increases of from $166 to $397, phased in over the next 10 years to help pay for about $50 million in improvements to the Richmond Municipal Sewer District. 

The increase came after the city paid an estimated $208,000 to settle 63 claims brought by residents or businesses seeking compensation for the damage caused by sewage spills in their homes and on their property. 

The city also was fined $15,000 by state water regulators last year for dumping small amounts of untreated waste into the Bay. 

The city-run district serves about 80,000 Richmond residents and about 100 commercial and industrial users. It includes the treatment plant, as well as the 300-mile sewage collection system, which needs repairs. On summer days, 7 million gallons of waste water move through the system; 40 million gallons move during the rainy season. 

As many as nine outside entities -- including the East Bay Municipal Utility District and U.S. Filter, a subsidiary of the Paris-based Vivendi Corp. -- have expressed interest in either taking over the plant or partnering with the city. 

Of the three options the council will consider tonight, the private agency option appears to have the least support. 

"They're looking for a profit, not to serve the residents," said Doug Dietz, president of Richmond Management Employees Association, which represents some of the district's union employees. "If they have a decision to make, it will be in the interest of themselves and their shareholders, not in the interest of the citizens of Richmond." 

Residents would be better served if the council doesn't limit its options, waste water watchdogs say. 

"If the city wants to make sure it's getting the best deal, it's got to explore all three options," said Richmond attorney Josh Genser, chairman of a blue ribbon citizen's advisory committee appointed to study Richmond's sewer problems. "You get the best deal that way." 

The city spends about $5 million annually just to operate the plant. 

The cost of improvements, such as new equipment and new technology, would be determined by the new consultant, but estimates far exceed the $10 million the rate increase would have covered. 

"It's just old," said Richard Karvosky, the city's director of public services. "The cost to try to maintain it over the next 20 years far exceeds the economic value. Instead of trying to maintain it, we need to improve it." 

The fate of the plant's 34 employees remains to be seen. 

If the council opts to have the district operate the plant, the city still would bear the cost of running it and making the needed improvements. 

If EBMUD were to take over treatment of the city's sewage, the city facility would close and an $18 million connector pipe would be built to ship Richmond's sewage to an EBMUD treatment plant. 

If a private company takes over operations, the improvements would be the firm's responsibility.