Private or public?

A Nebraska clean-water plant makes dramatic improvements without a change to privatized operations

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It’s an old question: Are clean-water plants better run by cities or by private contractors under city supervision? As in many areas, it seems the answer is: It depends. Private contractors have done great things at some facilities, while others perform exceptionally under municipal control.

One example of the latter scenario is the City of Grand Island, Neb., where according to a recent news report substantial improvements have been made without turning the treatment plant over to a private operator, as had been proposed.

The Grand Island Independent newspaper reports that the city decided last February to keep the plant under city management. While the city staff has made big changes, more are in the offing. “Wastewater Plant Engineer Marvin Strong told the city council...that past rate hikes were put into place to support $44 million of improvements to the plant and its aging collection lines. However, some $60 million worth of improvements are expected to be needed in the next five years.”

Project starting this year include a rebuild of the 50-year-old headworks, costing $18 million. Strong credited newly hired operations engineer Jue Zhao and lab technician Joe Shanle with leading a variety of improvements.

They revamped lab processes to correct deficiencies involving late reports and improperly stored chemicals. Zhao received credit for using a modeling program to improve aeration efficiency and cut power usage by 15 percent – and it appears more savings are to come. “Part of the improvement, too, has come with a structured asset management plan and additional training for existing plant staff,” the paper reported.

So it appears that either a private contractor or an existing city team can turn a plant around – it just depends on who is willing to step up to the plate. It also depends in no small measure on whether the city and its ratepayers are willing to fund the improvements that are necessary. It seems clear the community of Grand Island has been willing to give that support.


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