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Columbia County Observer

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Lake City

City Manager Johnson Backs Down on Utility Outsourcing: City Workers Safe Through Christmas

Deputy Clerk Katy McCrary (in red), City Attorney Greene, City Manager Johnson, Mayor Witt

LAKE CITY, FL – After 40 minutes of discussion about privatizing the operation of the City's wastewater treatment plants, City Manager Johnson backed down and moved to table his request until December to publish a Request for Proposals (RFP) to privatize the operation of Lake City's wastewater treatment plants. However, the City Utility appears to be trouble. Moments before the motion was tabled, Utility Director Steve Roberts told the committee, "We need to look at this because we have no capital. We have dipped into our reserves the last two years and we simply do not have the money."

A few minutes into the meeting, Lake City resident, Barbara McGlamory Cutcher said, "I don’t want to see these guys lose their jobs. The new company’s gonna hire very few of them. They’re gonna bring in their own people."


The Council Chamber was stacked with City workers. None of them spoke in favor of privatization, although City wastewater employee, Sonny Vanskyhawk, after listening to City Manager Johnson, suggested a "cost savings committee of people in the field [City utility workers]" and added, "I honestly believe that it's prudent for the Council to look at it," he said.

City Manager Johnson followed up, "If we don’t ask the question, do we really know if it’s the best thing or not?"

On the Hot Seat: The City Manager had a lot to say

City Manager Johnson began, "I’m glad to see you guys here tonight. That shows me that you are dedicated employees."

What was on the table: From the agenda information sheet:

The City Utility Administration staff is requesting to have a discussion about submitting a RFP/RFQ on the Contract operations and maintenance services being performed by a private firm under an agreement with the City. The contractor will take full responsibility for specific utility functions that will include the complete operation and maintenance of wastewater treatment facilities. These functions solely include Lift-stations, Wastewater Treatment Plant(s), and Sprayfield/Wetland Operations.

Operating under a fixed budget and guaranteeing plant performance and product quality, the contractor will be responsible for payment of all normal and routine costs associated with the operation and maintenance of each specific facility. Major capital expenditures for expansion and upgrade of facilities, however, remain the responsibility of the City.

While cost savings are expected, the primary reason to consider Contract Services is the price guarantee for such services, as the contractor is providing professional management, technical expertise, and financial controls for all wastewater operations.

Mr. Johnson claimed that a local news report “erroneously” claimed that the Utility Administration came to him and “asked that we consider contract operation of the wastewater plant. That is not true. I am the one that brought this discussion up over a year ago... It’s been historically brought up... This has surfaced times past and been considered and never materialized.”

Mr. Johnson's remarks are in conflict with the record which clearly stated, "The City Utility Administration staff is requesting to have a discussion about submitting a RFP/RFQ on the Contract operations and maintenance services being performed by a private firm under an agreement with the City." (see column at right)

Mr. Johnson said, "When I go home at night I want to sleep just like you guys do. I don’t want to be worrying about my job."

There was a room full of people, many of whom were worried about their jobs.

City workers came out to listen and be heard.

City Manager Johnson asked, "Why would a man like me want to subject himself to a room full of people that’s lookin’ at me like I’m a dirty, rotten scoundrel?”

He answered his own question, “Because that’s my job... I have to plan ahead.”

Mr. Johnson explained that taxes have been flat for the last 5 to 6 years; the City has not been getting any new utility customers; “capacity has actually gone down.”

Johnson: "I care about the employees."

Mr. Johnson continued, "I heard that one local news source, and I use that term sparingly, said that Mr. Clanton, the former Utility Director (see white box) ... had discussed back in 2008 a contract operation of the water plant, the brand new water plant that came on-line. That surfaced at that time and the choice was because of the benefit to the employees for you to keep your jobs – he wouldn’t do it. Cared too much about the employees."

"Well, I’m here to tell ya’, I care about employees. Many of you don’t think I do, don’t know me. I care just as much about you as anybody, but I also care about the citizens and the taxpayers and users of our systems and that’s what I’m paid to consider."

City Costs Ramping Up: $1,100,000 a year

City Manager Johnson explained that beginning in FY 2017 the City would be responsible for $500,000 in additional bond payments to pay for Kicklighter, the new wastewater plant. He added that it was going to cost an additional $600,000 a year to operate the new wastewater plant.

Mr. Johnson opined that if he didn't cut costs a possible rate hike would be in the City's future.

Mr. Johnson read out loud the "Public Private Partnership and Objective:"

The purpose of this partnership is to operate, maintain and manage the City's wastewater influent, treatment plants, and effluent facilities more cost effectively and efficiently. The objective is to save the City money, operate in compliance, improve maintenance, consider innovations to lower the capital and operating costs of any and all aspects of operations and continue local purchases of supplies, consumables and services, wherever practical.

Mr. Johnson asked, "Do I think that this company can do more efficiently than you’re doin’ now? No. I don’t think that, but I know they’re goin’ to have to do it. I know that they’re not goin’ to do it by bringin’ their own people in here."

Mr. Johnson continued, "This document (the RFP) right here. It tells them they gotta guarantee that they’re gonna hire some employees that’s gonna’ be runnin’ that plant. So it’s gonna’ come from the people that's already here."

The RFP states the following:

Provision that the respondent shall provide a sufficient number of certified qualified personnel, including management, administrative, operational, technical, laboratory and clerical, who meet relevant legal requirements and certifications regarding operation and maintenance and are capable and demonstrate experience necessary to operate and maintain the facility(s).

Provisions to offer available positions to present full-time employees and provide comparable total wages and benefits packages.

Mr. Johnson continued, "Another thing that this document says is it’s gonna’ show a plan that if there’s surplus employees, some employees that’s just not needed for their method of operatin' – what are you going to do with these employees? You're gonna’ have to tell us how you’re gonna find them jobs. They’re gonna tell us that."

It doesn't say that in the RFP.

"Let’s do an RFP and see what it tells us," he said.

Wrapping Up: Your reporter asked about outsourcing.

City Manager Johnson listens.

The Observer asked Mr. Johnson if the infrastructure is going to be new and you are looking to get an outside company to do what it says in the RFP [operate and maintain the City's wastewater treatment plants, etc.] – if you are not going to save money on labor, where else are you going to save it?

 "How are you going to save money by having a new work force unless it’s to save the money on labor?"

Mr. Johnson replied, "That’s why we do the RFP. They tell us how. That’s how we know. We don’t know if we don’t ask."

Utility Director Steve Roberts:
Does he see the writing on the wall?

Director Roberts told the group, "In 2007 I was approached by Dave Clanton [Utility Director] and Henry Sheldon [City Engineer] to privatize the water plant." Director Roberts explained that they were against it and he was for "looking into it." He continued by telling the Committee, "We need to look at this because we have no capital. We have dipped into our reserves the last two years and we simply do not have the money."

Tabled Until December

The City Manager then moved to table the motion to request proposals to outsource the operations of the City's wastewater plants, etc. until the first meeting in December. He told the Committee, “It’s against my better judgment to do this.”

The only "nay" vote was Utility Director Steve Roberts. 

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