P3 all over me - part II 

VC Powel continues on the trail of Whistler's wastewater treatment plant public-private partnership conundrum.

By VC Powel

Cliff Jennings and his wife Vivien have been in Whistler for 40 years. Their four kids were born here, and two still live in town.

"I started working for the Muni in 1977," Jennings said as we sat in my living room, "and worked my way up through the system. I was works foreman for a while, then moved to utilities, then to the wastewater treatment plant 15 years ago. I took early retirement in 2002 because of stress. My replacement lasted about six months. The foreman left. A lot of staff left. I’d say the problems began about eight or nine years ago."

What kind of problems, I asked.

"Not with the plant," Jennings said. "I mean, it should have been upgraded when Dayton and Knight suggested, but the problems are more in the management area."

How did he feel about the blue ribbon panel suggestion that a P3 approach would realize savings by lowering the staffing number from the current 10 to "two to four," I wondered.

"I don’t know where they got 10 from," he said. "There were seven when I was supervisor, including me, and I think there are supposed to be five now, but there might only be four. There’s a plant in Nevada that’s about twice the size of Whistler’s and they have around 70 staff.

"When we had adequate staff we could monitor things closely and make minor adjustments before they became big problems. We could do preventative maintenance rather than wait until something broke. We ran the testing lab on site and did daily monitoring. Now it’s been contracted out and they might have to wait five or six days to find out if there’s a problem."

I asked him how he felt about the two options council had looked at, the P3 and the traditional approach.

"I don’t have any emotional attachment," Jennings said, "but I know of at least two occasions Dayton and Knight came to us and suggested innovations that saved Whistler millions of dollars, once on tankage, and another time on the solids treatment. They know all our bylaws, our weather and geographical issues, they helped write the Liquid Waste Management Plan, they know the existing plant inside and out because they built it. They’ve worked with the permit and Natural Step. As far as I know they delivered every project on time and on budget. If it’s not broken, why fix it?"

After Jennings left I sat there looking at my notes and realized that every time I talked with someone new, the whole issue just got more complex, and I got more conflicted. It was time to talk with the big boys and bring it on home.


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