St. C. committee reviews privatization bid

T-L Photo/ROBERT A. DEFRANK St. Clairsville Council President Tim Porter reviews a bid for water privatization with Kathryn Thalman. Both are members of an advisory committee that met Friday to evaluate bids and make a recommendation to the city council.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The city is considering all factors before making a decision in the matter of water privatization.

A committee of local experts held their first meeting Friday to evaluate a bid from Aqua Ohio, the private entity that has expressed an interesting purchasing the city’s aging water and wastewater system.

St. Clairsville Safety and Service Director Jim Zucal, also a committee member, said they will be expected to evaluate the bid using criteria. These include the proximity to St. Clairsville and likely response time for any issue, the number of customers served, compliance with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, the-five-and-ten-year capital improvement plans, purchase price, fairness of rates, and whether there is a buy-back or opt-out clause. Other factors to be evaluated include any possible reduction in laboratory costs and increased quality, and issues of fire safety and the replacement of undersized water lines.

The committee members were each presented a copy of Aqua Ohio’s bid and will review it at length in preparation for the next meeting.

“There’s a lot of detail. A lot to pay attention to,” Zucal said. “You certainly need time to look at all this.”

Finance Director Cindi Henry will also be available to assist in answering any financial questions.

The committee members introduced themselves. They are Kathryn Thalman of St. Clairsville, concerned citizen with a background of chemistry and biology; Jeff Vaugn, St. Clairsville business owner and a lead engineer for Belmont County; A.J. Smith, civil engineer with Hull and Associates; Council President Tim Porter, Zucal, Mayor Terry Pugh, and Bob Brooks, a local resident who has been a voice of opposition to privatization.

All are either residents of town, business owners or employees, who will be impacted by the outcome of the city’s decision.

Pugh said the committee will meet weekly, with the next meeting set for 11 a.m. Thursday. Future meetings will likely also be held Thursday. Pugh said they will meet until they are ready to provide a recommendation to the council to assist in making a decision.

Brooks pointed out that the city has only one bid to consider.

“If there is only one bid here, what is our purpose?” Brooks said. Pugh said they were to evaluate the bid based on the criteria provided.

“This is the only bid that we received. We advertised and did everything we could,” Pugh said. “We received one. That’s what we’re here for, to evaluate this bid.”

In answer to another question from Brooks, Pugh said the committee process and the information they would review was open to the public.

Thalman added that she found it interesting that Aqua Ohio had operations around the Cleveland and Youngstown areas, where hydraulic fracking was an issue. She said she would like to see if Aqua Ohio was able to take precautions against any possible water contamination from fracking.

She said she will consider water quality in general when evaluating the bid.

“Also, a lot of the information coming through from them that I just read briefly talked about satisfaction of city officials. I want to know if residents are satisfied. If the water tastes different or if the costs have gotten absolutely out of hand,” she said.

Porter said afterward he would review the bid with an eye to its impact on the city residents.

“This is a big step, and it’s going to be forever,” Porter said. “We want to make sure that everything is right, and everything is going to be done the correct way. … We’re putting as much protection I’m sure into this as we can for our citizens. The bottom line is our systems are bad. We have to make a move. We have to correct the problem.”

“My plan is to read the material that was handed out and to come up with some questions,” Smith said. “I’m trying to into it with an open mind and develop questions.”

“The mayor and the service director appointed a good, balanced group of people with a staked interest in the City of St. Clairsville,” Vaugn said. “There’s a lot to be learned from reading this information. We’re looking forward to diving in. … My experience is mostly when these things are run by the public themselves … not by a private-sector company, so I’m interested to learn more about that

“The private sector, typically they need to turn a profit on their investment, so how they do that and also capitalize all the infrastructure that needs replaced, I’d be curious on how that can be done.”

Pugh and Zucal said they wished to further review the bid before quoting Aqua Ohio’s price and comparing issues such as potential changes in rates or possible savings in testing fees. Attorneys would then further negotiate.

“As far as numbers go, we just haven’t had a chance to really dissect it,” Pugh said. “This is such a huge decision for the city, nobody’s going to do it without really looking at everything.”

“It’s early,” Zucal said. “We want to comb through all this.”

Pugh has said the council could potentially vote on the bid in August.