Public/Private Partnership Yields Benefits for Utility

Though American business is operating at time of nearly constant change, that doesn't seem to make change any easier. This is especially so when a municipality is faced...

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Though American business is operating at time of nearly constant change, that doesn't seem to make change any easier. This is especially so when a municipality is faced with the need to consider a completely different way of doing business.

That was the situation 10 years ago in the Borough of Boyertown, PA. With the retirement of the only wastewater plant manager the Borough had ever had, Boyertown was faced with the challenge of replacing his expertise. Not an easy task, given the technical and regulatory know-how the job requires. In addressing the challenge, the Borough manager decided to investigate alternatives to traditional public works management. The result has been a public/private partnership that almost immediately yielded nearly a half million dollars in savings to the Borough – and an additional annual savings of $60,000 for the past 10 years.

Located in the southeastern part of the state, Boyertown lies 45 miles northwest of Philadelphia in the rolling farm and orchard country of the Pennsylvania Dutch. A little more than one quarter of this town of 4,000 to 5,000 residents is employed in manufacturing industries.

The Borough's wastewater system serves only the residents of Boyertown. It includes 20 miles of collection lines, one lift (pump) station, and a 0.75 mgd treatment plant. The water system serves Borough residents plus a few thousand customers in outlying areas. The system includes a 1.9 mgd surface water treatment plant, two raw water reservoirs totaling 400 MG with more than 700 acres of watershed, two 1-MG storage tanks, one 0.1 MG standpipe, one booster station, and 25 miles of water distribution lines. The combined facilities serve 7,400 residents.

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Upon the retirement of the Borough's long-time wastewater plant manager in 1994, then-assistant Borough manager Patricia Spaide believed it was time to take a fresh look at the Borough's water and wastewater requirements.

"Replacing someone with such experience would have been a tall order," Spaide said. "And with advancing water and wastewater technology and increasingly stringent environmental regulations, the Borough began considering professional outsourcing."

Municipalities in the U.S. first began outsourcing the operation of publicly owned wastewater facilities to private companies more than 30 years ago. In 2002, private firms operated more than 2,400 publicly owned water and wastewater facilities for nearly 2,000 municipal clients.

After a competitive bidding process, the Borough chose Severn Trent Services of Fort Washington, PA, for full-service contract operations and maintenance of the water and wastewater treatment plants. Severn Trent also provides water and sewer line repair and maintenance, watershed protection, capital projects management, and customer service for the Borough.

The company first implemented changes to chemical feed, solids management and process control programs that improved wastewater treatment and reduced costs. According to Spaide, the company spent significant time in the first year getting the sewer plant in compliance and operating correctly. But it quickly became apparent that all the early work was paying off when the company also determined that the Borough's preliminary plans for additional tankage and filters were unnecessary.

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"Boyertown was considering spending nearly $500,000 for capital improvements we thought were needed," Spaide said. "This is where the expertise of professional wastewater managers has been most helpful. The typical borough or township manager doesn't have a degree in chemistry or environmental engineering. We're business people hired to run a municipality."

Subsequently, Severn Trent recommended removing trickling filters and multimedia filters from service because the system was achieving regulatory compliance without them. In fact, the Borough has saved $60,000 annually by eliminating the filters, yet has improved discharge quality. Drinking water treatment also was optimized by changes in chemical treatment, automation, and employee development and training.

"Most small- to mid-sized municipalities just can't match the resources of a company the size of Severn Trent," Spaide said. "Their training programs – particularly safety training – are beyond what we as a small municipality can provide for ourselves."

The cost savings provided by the Borough's partnership have been an eye-opener for Spaide. But the Borough's results go far beyond just money. In 2002, the Boyertown wastewater facility was awarded the Eastern Pennsylvania Water Pollution Control Operators Association Plant Safety Award. In 2003, the facility earned the Pennsylvania Water Environment Association's Facility Safety Award. And the water treatment plant received a commendation from the Department of Environmental Protection for meeting all maximum contaminant level, monitoring, and treatment technique performance requirements for calendar year 1997.

According to Marc DesAutels, area manager for Severn Trent Services and the supervisor of the Boyertown facilities, public/private partnerships are increasing in number because "they work."

"The results are undeniable," DesAutels said. "And unlike privatization, which involves the sale or transfer of ownership of public assets to the private sector, the public partner remains in charge in the public/private partnership. The municipality owns the assets, controls the management of the assets, and establishes the user rates.

"In Boyertown, Severn Trent retained the staff that was in place and simply implemented new management methods and technology."

"The best thing about our partnership with Severn Trent," Spaide said, "is that I know our facilities are operating at optimum performance levels. I just don't think we could have done that by ourselves."

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