A solution looking for a problem 

Dobbin believes Whistler should say no to public-private partnership at sewage plant

Public-private partnership critic Murray Dobbin says Whistler’s wastewater treatment plant "is a jewel" that should be left in the public sector.

"Do sewage the way you have for years and you’ll be just fine," Dobbin told an audience of 25 who came to hear the journalist and former Council of Canadians board member speak at the Spruce Grove Field House about the potential for Whistler’s wastewater treatment plant to be run as a public-private partnership.

"Public-private partnership is a solution looking for a problem," he said.

Whistler’s wastewater treatment plant needs a $32.5 million upgrade and the municipality’s engineering department is recommending to tender out a $58.5 million, 12-year design-build-operate (DBO) contract for the plant. The engineering department points out that many of its operations, such as garbage and recycling services and transit, are already contracted out and maintains the DBO or pubic-private partnership (P3) approach is more cost efficient "because it integrates the design, construction, and operating elements into a cohesive process."

But speaking at the field house, Dobbin, a former member of BC Citizens for Public Power, said P3 track records show a trail of higher costs, lower quality of service, insufficient disclosure and in some cases, fraud.

Citing examples of Hamilton, Ontario’s experience with a public-private partnership for its wastewater treatment in which three major spills occurred in the contracted company’s first five years of service, resulting in litigation, Dobbin advised Whistler residents to reject any movement toward a P3 approach.

"Health (-related) services to the community should not be subjected to the profit model," Dobbin said, noting that municipalities can borrow money for infrastructure programs cheaper than corporations, and warning that public-private partnerships result in poorly trained workers replacing experienced workers and lack of adherence to quality controls.

Sierra Legal Defence Fund ranked Whistler’s wastewater treatment plant as second of the 23 cities it surveyed in its 2005 National Sewage Report Card.

Of four treatment levels available to run a wastewater treatment plant, Whistler has tertiary treatment, the most advanced, according to John Werring, Sierra’s senior staff scientist.

"Tertiary treatment does additional filtering or adds ultra-violet treatment," Werring said. "It’s basically state of the art."

Councillor Gord McKeever said he came to listen because uprgrading Whistler’s wastewater treatment plant "is a strong topic in the community right now" and pointed out that financing is not a part of the project.

"The comments about 35-year agreements have a lack of relevance to me because it is a shorter term we’re contemplating here," McKeever said. "There is validity to the arguments and I want to spend some time thinking about it," he said.

Spring Creek homeowner John Sinclair said he came to the meeting not sure where he stood on public-private partnership approach to Whistler’s wastewater treatment plant.

"I’m more committed now than I was before to stopping the P3," Sinclair said. "We need to keep essential services within the public realm."

"We’re giving the wrong idea to British Columbians about what we should be doing with our sewer project," said Alpine Meadows resident Marilyn Kapchinsky. "Our government wants us to have a strong British Columbia, but by selling our assets, privatizing our companies, we’re not doing that."

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