Metro-East News

Opinions pro and con: Should O’Fallon sell its water system?

The issue has divided a community: the potential lease or sale of the O’Fallon wastewater system.

Voters will face two similar questions on the April 7 ballot:

• From the city: Shall the city of O’Fallon consider only a lease and not a sale of the municipal-owned water and wastewater systems and related assets?

• From O’Fallon Citizens for Action: Shall the city of O’Fallon sell or lease the municipal-owned water and wastewater systems and related assets?

These are advisory referendums, meaning the city would not be bound to the outcomes.

Opponents fear that water and sewer rates will go up under private ownership of the system. They are concerned about the potential loss of jobs for city employees and argue that a private company will not be as responsive to problems such as maintenance of water lines and the sewer plant.

Proponents say selling or leasing the city-owned Water Department will prevent the city from having to raise taxes. They also say that leasing the system could raise up to $50 million in revenue for infrastructure, while allowing the city to retain ownership of the system, control of water rates and oversight of water quality.

Questions and accusations dominated Monday night’s O’Fallon City Council meeting, punctuated mainly by comments from citizens on both sides of the issue.

Resident Ron Zelms, who opposes leasing the wastewater system, said that a Freedom of Information Act request filed in September produced hundreds of emails that show the city was actively considering selling the water department even before it hired a consulting firm in March 2014.

“Even though Huron Consulting wasn’t hired until March 17, 2014, consultants were actively engaged with city officials at least one year prior to that regarding the sale of the water and sewer utilities. Four days after Huron Consulting was hired, a lawyer from a firm that regularly does business with the city asked the following of a city official: ‘What is the status of the future planning of the water system?’ The first sentence of the response by the city official was, ‘On the water issue, the council has voted to bring in Huron Consulting (ex-mayor of Indianapolis) to start marketing us.’ I went back and reread the resolution to hire Huron Consulting. They were hired to conduct a management study of the utility systems, not to market them.

“Even though a contract wasn’t signed with the law firm of Baker & McKenzie until Aug. 18, 2014, they were actively engaged and wanting to bill for services well before that. Within eight days of officially hiring Huron Consulting, invitations were sent out to four potential vendors to meet April 22, 2014, at a St. Louis law firm to discuss how the process for the possible sale and/or outsourcing of the water and sewer operations ought to be conducted.”

Zelms concluded by providing his reasons for why citizens should vote no on the ballot questions:

“First, vote no on the city’s question to consider a lease in order to send a message to City Hall that you do not condone (their) back-door dealings. Second, vote no on the citizens’ question to send a message that our city is not for sale or lease to the highest bidder.”

Abrahm Mayo, an organizer of “Vote Yes Please OFallon,” spoke of emails his group obtained through an FOIA request that indicated a foreman at the city’s water and sewer department used his city account during business hours to send an email opposing the potential leasing of the water and sewer system.

“It appears that this city worker abused the power placed in him by taxpayers of O’Fallon who entrusted him to handle our water supply,” Mayo said. “I do not understand why certain city workers feel so threatened unless they think a private company can do the same job they perform for less cost.”

Others who spoke out on the issue included:

• Stewart Drolet said, “I think the issue is much bigger than money. I would argue water and sewer is unique as far as how the costs are set. Anybody who buys it is out to make a profit. It is a monopoly. Utilities work based on their own schedule. Coordinating with a utility can be a nightmare.”

• Terry Lysakowski, who worked 20 years at the O’Fallon Water Department, said, “I’ve had ancestors in this town for quite some time,” he said. “My family has nine generations in this town including my kids. The city has a habit of wasting money for the new kids on the block. The only way to stop your taxes from going up in this Home Rule community is to vote no twice. Vote no twice and then follow up and voice your opinion with your alderman.”

• Mike Cook said of the water department employees, “They earn those salaries and benefits. I take pride and I think we should all take pride in paying those wages so they can raise a family here. I’m outraged at the personal attacks against our city workers.”

• Vern Malare distributed letters to the council from the city of Fairview Heights opposing O’Fallon leasing or selling the water system to a private entity. Fairview Heights receives water supplied for most of its residents by O’Fallon.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t lease it,” Malare said.