Cobden – The Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) will continue to be the operator of the three drinking water and one wastewater systems in Whitewater Region for the next two years. It has been the operators since November 2013, with a contract renewed every two years.
However, Councillor Neil Nicholson brought up the idea of having staff do research on how much it would cost for the township to revert back to taking care of the systems itself. The discussion occurred during the October 21 council meeting held virtually.
Steve Hodson, Environmental Services Superintendent for the township, noted the agreement includes a 5.6 per cent increase to the annual operations for this renewal term as well as a .5 per cent CPI for the management portion.
In 2019-2020, the township paid $850,818.34 to OCWA, while for 2020-21, the estimated amount will be $896,144.80. Mr. Hodson noted most times the budgetted amount is not used, which is a savings for the township.
OCWA also provided a breakdown for the individual systems, which saw Cobden’s water system total $322,162.32 and its wastewater system total $338,776.37; Beachburg’s water system total was $193,983.68, and Haley townsite cost $41,222.43. Each of these systems are user-pay only.
Mr. Hodson said with the new Cobden sewage treatment plant coming on-line early next year, it’s being suggested the next OCWA contract be for a longer term.
Coun. Nicholson said with an almost million-dollar contract, he wants to ensure the township is getting a good service for the money it is spending and that the township continues to have a say in the operations, unlike the policing situation, where the township is told what it is paying and has no say in how it’s done.
Mr. Hodson noted prior to 201, the township operated the systems, however, it was done “very haphazardly.
“We were understaffed and things have changed since then,” he said. “With the new auditing process, you have to be accredited, you have to be an accredited operating authority, which we were. We did get accredited, but we weren’t focusing on the things that have changed, specifically the drinking quality management standards.”
The township had two operators and was lucky there were no problems, he said.
“OCWA staffs accordingly and appropriately, hence the price goes up, plus we had never raised rates, plus we were patching our plants on shoe-string budgets, so to operate your plants effectively, according to the legislation and safely for your residents, this is unfortunately, the cost of doing business,” he said.
Mr. Hodson said a proper model can be looked at, but he doesn’t think there will be much savings.
“I know your question isn’t about the service we’re getting, but I would like to add, the service we’re getting is fantastic,” he said.
Public Works Manager Lane Cleroux noted the salary portions of the four systems is just over $500,000.
Coun. Nicholson said council must do its due diligence and investigate if it’s feasible for the township to take on this contract itself, instead of hiring.
He noted that in order for council to make a decision in two years whether to renew, and possibly for a longer contract, other options have to be investigated.
“We are talking $1 million a year,” he said. “At least we can look and analyze the cost.”
Chief Administrative Officer Robert Tremblay noted expert advice would also have to be brought in, because it’s not possible for staff to gather all the required information.
Following a question if there are other companies that provide this service, Mr. Hodson said there is one more company he is aware of, but OCWA is the forerunner.
Mr. Cleroux said of the 10 municipalities in Renfrew County that provide water, OCWA operates three municipal services; three municipalities do it inhouse while Laurentian Hills uses a different company.
Councillor Charlene Jackson said the largest challenges will be ensuring the township can hired qualified people and then keeping them qualified.
“OCWA not only have qualified people, they have qualified experts who are out there that people who work our plants now can draw on at no extra cost to us,” she said. “I think when it does come to a decision whether or not we do this study and have staff expend their time and energy into it, I would like to see a council resolution and a decision by all of council. ”
She said she would not be in favour of the municipality operating the plants.
“While I understand the costs are quite large, I know that costs to implement what they’re doing right now are going to be huge and I don’t think we’re going to see any savings,” she said.
The drinking water system alone will be costly, considering the amount of staff required and paying them a “hefty price” because there are limited staff to do this work, she said.
“It’s not just the pipes in the underground, it is the operation of the water systems and wastewater system that I’m worried about, the actual treatment of that,” she said. “You look at even two people, we’re probably looking at a rate of pay that would really mess with not only our pay equity, would mess with the cost of it.
“It’s not an easy job to do and there’s a number of certifications that need to be done. You want to have very qualified people in place and I don’t think there are that many extra people out there that could do the job if we went on our own.”
Councillor Daryl McLaughlin knew Laurentian Hills had a different company taking care of its system.
“We owe it to our ratepayers to have these things sourced out,” he said. “At least this company could come and look at our systems and maybe allow them to come on a quote.
“I think it’s a 5.6 per cent increase each year and thinking that way, and thinking cost of living, it’s about three times what the cost of living is.”
While Coun. McLaughlin said he understood what Coun. Jackson was saying, he felt the other company should be able to provide a quote.
Reeve Cathy Regier agreed with Coun. Jackson and Coun. McLaughlin, noting she was on council with Coun. McLaughlin when the decision was made to go with OCWA.
“I think we’ll be taking a step backwards here should we decide to take this back on ourselves,” she said. “I think Councillor McLaughlin will remember many of the issues we had.”
She recalled the health issues of the two men who were solely responsible for the four systems, along with other operational and maintenance issues.
“Councillor Jackson is right,” Reeve Regier said. “You are not going to find these individuals anywhere and you are going to pay and pay dearly for it.”
Councillor Chris Olmstead questioned if this could be one of the shared services with Renfrew County, as there are other municipalities using OCWA. He also questioned if there was a way out of the contract.
Mr. Tremblay said he would have to look into the sharing, while Mr. Hodson said a year’s notice must be given to get out of the contract.
Mr. Cleroux said he was meeting with JP2G Consultants in Pembroke and the contractor regarding the new wastewater plant. While it was scheduled to be ready “10 days from now,” there were delays, some due to COVID, and it’s expected not to be operational for at least four months. He said he will have a better idea of the timeline following the meeting.
Council agreed to the two-year contract, with Coun. Nicholson pointing out there was no chance to not renew, because there was no one ready to take over the operations.
Connie Tabbert, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader