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Sweet Home to take over water plant operations

Sweet Home to take over water plant operations

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SWEET HOME — The Public Works Department will soon become responsible for providing drinking water to the community’s 9,000 residents, City Council members agreed Tuesday evening.

The goal is to be operational by July 1.

Sweet Home built a new water treatment plant in 2009, and it has been managed by Jacobs Engineering for about $1 million per year.

But in March 2019, Public Works Director Greg Springman told the council he was not satisfied with Jacobs’ performance, especially in terms of maintenance and an escalating annual expense. An inspection revealed more than four dozen maintenance issues.

Springman said he believed the city could operate the plant with much better maintenance for less than the $1 million the city was paying Jacobs.

Numerous inspections of the facility have ensued and Jacobs has tackled many of the maintenance issues, Springman told the council Tuesday.

Springman said the city already has employees who could be trained to operate the facility and others could be hired.

“I believe we can cultivate local talent,” Springman said.

Springman also said the city has been working with Inframark, which put in a bid to operate the facility, and the relationship has been excellent, but Springman believes the city would save about $176,000 per year by operating the plant in-house.

Springman said Inframark’s estimate for labor alone was $778,000. He estimated the city could operate the plant for about $512,000 in labor, plus the cost of a laboratory, leaving a net of $176,000.

“First, Inframark has been professional and accommodating through the RFP (request for proposals) and negotiation process,” City Manager Ray Towry said in a report to council members. “Staff has pushed them to be open to an unusual contract that is far from the industry norm in that it is essentially a labor contract only — the city pays the bills and oversees the general operating philosophy. They’ve been responsive and understanding of our concerns and the issues we have faced.”

James Huentelman of Inframark told the council that while the company wants the city’s business, it would be fully willing to provide services for five years while the staff is trained and then “turn over the keys” to the city.

And Inframark would welcome current staff interested in learning to operate the plant.

“For five years, our price would be fixed, so you would know what you are going to pay,” Huentelman said.

Huentelman said other advantages would be that Inframark would install a computerized maintenance management system that could be expanded to include the new wastewater treatment plant when it comes online; Inframark will implement a “robust” employee training program; standard operating procedures will be cataloged for every piece of equipment. That information would transfer to the city when the contract expired.

Towry told the council that a contract with Inframark would be the least risky way to proceed, since there are unknowns associated with the city taking over plant operation.

Councilor Diane Gerson said she has long favored bringing the water plant operation in-house, but with the amount of work needed to build a new wastewater treatment plant, this may not be the time to do so.

“A five-year agreement could get us through the wastewater treatment plant project,” Gerson said. “It appears Inframark wants a successful venture with us.”

Councilor Dave Trask said, “It is time to make the change. We should go in-house.”

“We have been very cautious,” Councilor Lisa Gourley said. “We have really good staff that are capable of doing this. We could utilize our cost savings and reinvest that money into our community.”

Voting in favor of moving the water plant operation in-house were Mayor Greg Mahler and Councilors James Goble, Gourley, Cortney Nash and Trask. Opposed were Gerson and Susan Coleman.

Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.

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