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August 11, 2020

6/18/2020 2:24:00 PM
Chisago Lakes Joint Sewage Treatment Commission races clock to major personnel changes

The nine members of the Chisago Lakes Joint Sewage Treatment Commission have  hit the proverbial fork in the road.  Should they opt for the regional wastewater system to remain public or should it be run by a private company?  Is there  some form of hybrid model where the commission  would contract with licensed professionals to serve as-needed?

Either way, who really cares as long as things work the way they’re supposed to when you flush ?

The elected commissioners care.
To say the Chisago Lakes Joint Sewage Treatment Commission is mired in a debate on which direction to head, is an understatement.  

Some favor hiring a large corporation with a roster  of skilled engineers to oversee the wastewater system.    

But the concern expressed by others is contracting-out could have the net result of losing control over an essential service managed by elected people,  who can be held accountable.

Center City, the Hazelden sanitary district area, Lindstrom, Chisago City, Stacy and Wyoming are jointly running a  regional sewage treatment facility, and but it’s becoming a battle to keep it public.  

Lindstrom city council, for one, supports going in the non-public direction. Mayor Kevin Stenson put privatization  to his council for a vote in late May, and it was approved 4-2  with Council members Waldoch and Roche opposed.

The council was given no information at the meeting on the slate of options under review by the wastewater commission. The vote generated some heated verbal exchanges at last week’s CLJSTC personnel subcommittee meeting.  

The subcommittee was tasked with reviewing operational options, and to report back to the full nine-member commission on keeping employee structure as is and filling upcoming vacancies-- or contracting with a company that runs wastewater plants.  The subcommittee should also look at the feasibility of using specially licensed administrators who will handle plant regulations and do reports part time while the workers remain public employees.   

Mayor Stenson sits on the sewer commission personnel subcommittee and he described the urgency for his council to make a decision on which direction the commission ought to go.
There will be a major personnel shake-up in a matter of weeks-- the plant supervisor with 40-plus years on the job-- retires this fall.  A lower level operator has quit,and there’s a hole to fill at a mid-level license psoition  and the administrative clerk has an upcoming retirement.

Stenson had recommended to his council the best course is to offically express Lindstrom’s preference to hire a company that runs wastewater plants professionally.    

Commission Chairman Mark Wolcott, Center City Mayor,  said last week at the subcommittee session that it was surprising to hear Lindstrom Council was making a decision when none of the other member cities are polling their councils at this point.  

Chisago City Council member Jeremy Dresel said his council has discussed the issue.   He didn’t see a problem with a vote, saying,  “It was Kevin’s choice for him to bring it to the full council for a vote.”

Lindstrom council took action when there’d been little response to advertising for the key sewer positions. By last week’s  sewer subcommittee meeting, however,  CLJSTC Superintendent Mark Nelson reported there were seven suitable applications for the superintendent post and four for the mid-level operator and 75 had applied for the entry level opening.

Nelson tried to turn the focus back to the need to finalize the choice of public management or privatizing.  

He pointed out that he doesn’t want to hire operator-level staff now and  if the commission opts to bring in a private company-- the staff will be let- go-- which is common practice.

Nelson said there needs to be clear direction,  even if it ends up private engineers on contract as on-call or backup.  The wastewater system requires Class A oversight and at the very least  a licensed person could come in periodically and verify process and authorize reports.

Commission member for the City of Wyoming Dennis Schilling felt city council input should be solicited. He said during the personnel subcommittee session, “This is month three that we’ve been talking about this...it should be on council agendas.”

Public versus private options need to be evaluated equally.  Dresel agreed,  saying he didn’t feel all options were being given a fair chance.  

Commission Chair Mark Wolcott explained that privatizing had been looked at before and the negatives outweighed any benefits.

Dresel said, the last time the wastewater commission rejected a privatization proposal was about six years ago.  Things may have changed, he said, “All I want is an open and honest process,” he stated. “That’s up to us...and I don’t feel that’s happening.”

In the week following the subcommittee session, a couple firms were identified that are interested in touring the CLJSTC facility. Supt. nelson said he has a potential interim operator (or two) who are interested as serving short term if there should be a gap in personnel.  Applications on-hand for the lower licensed operators will be brought to the subcommittee Monday next week,  for the group to select a few for interviews in the next several days.

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