City reconsidering wastewater operation options

Monticello has made significant investments in its waste water treatment plant and is committed to continuing to improve the services in compliance with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.  Over the past five years improvements were made to address pending biosolids management issues, enhance operating efficiencies and reduce operating costs, increase the safety of the overall system, and extend the useful life of disposal equipment.          (Graphic Courtesy City of Monticello)
Monticello has made significant investments in its waste water treatment plant and is committed to continuing to improve the services in compliance with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Over the past five years improvements were made to address pending biosolids management issues, enhance operating efficiencies and reduce operating costs, increase the safety of the overall system, and extend the useful life of disposal equipment. (Graphic Courtesy City of Monticello)

A city takeover of Monticello Wastewater Treatment Plant operations was the subject of a June 12 council workshop.

City Administrator Jeff O’Neill reported that an annual cost savings of $121,000 could occur if city leaders eventually terminated a contract with Veolia Water North America. The city will continue to negotiate with Veolia for a long-term contract and make a final determination about a future operations provider later this year.

O’Neill’s workshop presentation included a history of Monticello waste water treatment operations and a comparison of continuing a private contract with Veolia versus using city staff to run the plant. O’Neill said the decision of private contract versus city staff does not have to be made at the present time, however, the city’s two-year extension of a prior five-year agreement with Veolia expires this December.

According to O’Neill, the five-year contract will automatically renew for another five years unless a written notice of non-renewal is provided 120 days prior to the contract expiration date. City leaders gave staff the go-ahead to send that letter by approving a related item during their June 12 regular meeting.

Facilities maintenance, staffing, technical support, and capital improvements were the primary considerations discussed during the workshop. Chuck Keyes, Veolia Water North America project manager, and Margaret Becker, Veolia Water North America vice president of operations, also attended the workshop.

In 2015, staff identified a cost-savings opportunity if the wastewater treatment plant were operated by the city instead of through a private contract, O’Neill explained.

The city council directed staff to bring back the public operation option with sufficient time to make the transition.

During the council’s recent 2017 strategic planning discussion, determining the future of waste water treatment operations was identified as a top priority. A study group consisting of O’Neill, Finance Director Wayne Oberg, Water & Sewer Superintendent Matt Theisen, Assistant Water & Sewer Superintendent Mat Stang, City Engineer Shibani Bisson and WSB & Associates researched the prospect of city operations.

The original transition from public to private operations at the plant occurred in 1985, O’Neill said. Veolia currently operates the facility with four employees who are cross-trained with two employees at Veolia’s Delano operation. If the city takes over the operation, O’Neill said four new positions would be created, with the city accepting responsibility for hiring and training.

City staff has the capacity to operate at the current level of compliance in 2018, O’Neill explained, but would have to hire a private contractor or one of the current Veolia Class A operators to meet licensing requirements.

We really want to evaluate our cost-saving opportunities,” O’Neill said. “That $121,000 is an estimated number right now. We do have a good relationship with WSB [the city’s consulting engineer] and Veolia, but we haven’t had a city public works director for a while that’s trained in this area. We don’t have a second set of city eyes looking at these [operational] things as closely as we should,” O’Neill explained.

The Monticello waste water treatment plan uses a sequencing batch reactor (SBR) system to treat wastewater. “The mechanical system involved with this is pretty complex,” Keyes said. “We’ve changed the plant around significantly in the last 30 years,” Keyes said, adding Veolia maintains an extensive history of all the equipment at the plant. There would be challenges if the plant was operated by the city, O’Neill said.

However, Stang has a Class B license and has industry experience and works under Theisen, who is getting ready to retire. “It is a complex design facility and presents some challenges, but over time, the city should be able to operate it efficiently and effectively,” Stang said. Theisen added: “If we do decide to go with this, I would not leave the city hanging by retiring. We are geared up. We can learn the operation. We want this to work, too. But we want to look at all options and make the right choice.”

Part of the complexity with Monticello and its SBR system is that the treatment facility gets a large percentage of its loading from a major industrial user, Becker said, referring to Cargill’s Monticello operations. “If we have a near-miss situation with an environmental issue or safety, it automatically goes to corporate oversight. We do an analysis and investigation. We share those experiences with the facilities we manage,” Becker added.

O’Neill said the city would have to beef up its employee knowledge and base if there was a handoff from Veolia. Mayor Brian Stumpf wanted to make sure the council made decision based on sound research. “If we eventually make the decision to take over, it will be a direction we’ll be going for a number of years.”

Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]