By Stew Slater
Two significant recent developments at the Town of St. Marys Municipal Operations Centre are unrelated, says CAO Kevin McLlwain. But the way they relate to each other will, nonetheless, likely be a key topic of discussion over coming weeks.
Early this year, Town employees in the Parks, Public Works and Water departments voted by a very slim margin to join the Canadian Union of Public Employees. According to McLlwain, negotiation dates have yet to be established between the Town and the union local.
Then last Thursday, Feb. 28, at a Special Meeting to discuss the 2013 budget, Town Council approved a recommendation to transfer management of the town’s municipal water supply system to an Ontario government Crown corporation known as Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA).
“OCWA already manages our wastewater treatment facility, and has done so since it was built,” McLlwain told the Journal Argus following the Feb. 28 meeting. “And there has been talk for some time, since long before I got here (in 2012), about going out to a Request for Proposals for some organization to operate both the wastewater and the municipal water side.”
“The reason why we want to combine water and wastewater is to take advantage of economies of scale,” he added.
The recommendation to go with OCWA at this point, however, arose not from an RFP. OCWA’s current contract for the wastewater treatment plant isn’t up until 2014; for that to be renewed or switched to another organization (there are private operators as well as municipally-run organizations set up in other centres, which could conceivably offer a price on the same role OCWA currently fills), the RFP would likely have been sent out by the Town later this year.
Instead, the recommendation to move now arose from the pending retirement of Water Supervisor Doug Betteridge, as well as the departure late last year by two Town staff members — Environment Manager Josh Stacey and Director of Public Works Todd Smythe — who might have had the water-related qualifications to succeed Betteridge.
And when it comes to water supply, McLlwain stressed, specific qualifications are extremely important.
Since the Walkerton E. coli tragedy, legislation and legal precedent has evolved to the point that, if anything happens as a result of inadequacies of a municipal water supply, elected officials can be held accountable if it can be shown they didn’t ensure all expertise was in place for the operation of the system.
Without qualified personnel in place currently to replace the outgoing water supervisor, it came down to searching outside the municipality for a new hire, or signing on with OCWA at least until an RFP could be sent out.
“And that’s OCWA’s business — water and wastewater,” the CAO noted, adding “the main driver” in last week’s transfer of management to the Crown corporation was ensuring no councillors could be held liable in the event of trouble.
The CUPE union vote, however, represents an additional complication.
Last week’s Council motion directs staff “to amend the existing wastewater treatment service contract to provide for management services of the municipal water supply system.” It doesn’t, however, provide clarity about the “operation” of the system — which, over and above Betteridge’s role, currently employs one full-time Town of St. Marys staffer as well as work for one full-time equivalent position that rotates through different departments.
And that lack of clarity stems from the fact that the fate of those positions lies in the yet-to-commence negotiations with the newly-formed CUPE local.
Betteridge is on the job for approximately another month. According to McLlwain, there will be a transition period leading to OCWA’s management of the water supply. And as for who does what regarding its operation, that won’t be clear for several weeks.