P3 sewage plant decision gets political 

Council feeling pressure from Victoria

Provincial pressure could play a role in Whistler’s decision to privatize its sewage treatment plant.

"I would say the province is very keen (to see the public/private partnership move forward)," Mayor Ken Melamed said Tuesday.

"There isn’t direct pressure… There is a behind the scenes pressure."

So while there have been no frank telephone calls or conversations from Victoria urging council to approve the privatization of the plant, the mayor explained that there is an underlying understanding that the province would like to see that happen.

"There’s an ideology that this government has brought to the province," added Melamed. "(That’s) in the back of our minds."

When asked if a negative decision on the P3 could affect Whistler’s chances of getting financial tools, or more revenues, from the province, Melamed said that was a concern.

"We’re speculating about what’s going on at the province," he said.

He explained there might be a provincial perception that Whistler has plenty of money and spends too much money on projects. So if the province believes the P3 is the most cost effective way to move forward with the sewage treatment plant upgrades, and council decides otherwise, that could create a stumbling block to getting financial tools.

"There is this political overtone," agreed Councillor Bob Lorriman. "I don’t think it’s driving the bus but it is there and it can’t be ignored. But it wouldn’t influence my decision, I don’t believe."

Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who has been a vocal opponent of the P3 as proposed, said provincial influence should not be a factor in the decision, despite whether or not it could harm Whistler’s chances of obtaining financial tools.

"We’ve been asking for financial tools for 10 years and we haven’t got them yet so I just question whether we’re ever going to see that, quite frankly," said Wilhelm-Morden. "I’m very, very, concerned about a 20-year operation of the plant by a private operator. And in order to decide whether it’s in the best interests of the community to do that, we have to look at the proposal on its own and decide on its own whether it’s a good thing or not."

For several years the Resort Municipality of Whistler has been investigating the possibility of a P3 for the multi-million dollar upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant in the south end of Whistler.

The P3 would see a private company take over the design and construction of the much-needed plant upgrades as well as the long-term operations of the facility.

Partnerships B.C., the Crown corporation that investigates P3s for the province, has been facilitating the RMOW’s research into this option. Its research shows a P3 could reduce not only the capital construction costs of the upgrades but also the annual operating costs.

Cost savings could be as much as 15 per cent less on the capital construction by using the P3 method as opposed to traditional procurement methods. Savings are also realized in the annual operating costs by $400,000 a year, according to Partnerships B.C.

Brian Barnett, the municipality’s general manager of engineering and public works, said the province is not dictating Whistler’s decision, however, it is helping to fund the project and Victoria is looking to see that Whistler finds the best method to manage risks and reduce costs.

"The funding for this project is one third municipal, one third provincial, one third federal and so the federal and the provincial government, who we work closer with, certainly have an interest in terms of ensuring the dollars they’re providing to any community such as Whistler are effectively used," said Barnett.

Steve Hollett of Partnerships B.C. said Premier Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government is not tied ideologically to the idea of P3s. He said they began under the previous NDP government.

The pressure, he said, is to do all the research on options and make the right decision. In this case Partnerships B.C. believes a P3 is the right decision.

"The provincial treasury board just wants to make sure you’ve done your homework," said Hollett.

"We’re not P3 evangelists."

But the Canadian Union of Public Employees disputes the cost savings put forward by Partnerships B.C. CUPE researcher Blair Redlin highlighted the organization’s concerns about the cost of the P3 at Monday’s council meeting. In a submission to council CUPE questioned the figures and the cost savings on the annual operations.

"There is nothing quantifiable or specific… to justify such a conclusion," the CUPE report states.

Redlin urged council to ask more questions about the impact of a P3 before making a decision.

A decision must be made in the coming months if the upgrades, which include eliminating the odour from the plant, are to be done before the 2010 Games.

"The longer we delay, the more the costs go up," said Melamed.

More details will be made available at a public open house on Thursday Feb. 2.

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