With only two months to go before the Oak Bluffs wastewater plant switches into gear, the town has no one to man the operation.
Town leaders were all set to hire a private firm to take the job, but when they took a close look at bids from four companies, it was a serious case of sticker shock. Last week, both the wastewater committee and the board of selectmen unanimously rejected all bids.
"We went down [that] route, and we just got stung badly," said wastewater committee chairman Fred Sonnenberg. The numbers, he added, "scare the life out of you."
If officials had opted for privatization, sewer users would have paid a steep price with an annual bill of about $1,000 a year, according to town executive secretary Casey Sharpe. Residential users are already being billed $500 a year for the next 20 years to pay their share of the capital costs to build the $14.2 million system.
But the cost of running the plant is just one problem, and while officials scramble to see if they can hire their own staff of operators, the other big question centers on revenue.
If the wastewater plant had been completed on schedule last June, there would have been a steady flow of sewage and money from users who number almost 600. All but 142 users are residential.
But now with an Oct. 15 completion date, officials can't count on either flow or money. Commercial users have to tie in immediately but the majority of the commercial users won't be creating any more wastewater until the next tourist season. Residential users, meanwhile, have several months before they have to tie in to the system.
Faced with this scenario, no one is hitting the panic button, but officials are openly worried about paying to operate a plant that few are even expected to use in the first several months.
"I'm really concerned," said Mr. Sonnenberg. "We got by the capital assessment one, and people didn't like that but they understood it was over 20 years. This operation thing is a lot more serious."
The goal, said top officials, is to keep sewer rates in line with what residents pay for water, which goes for a base rate of $300 a year. But don't look for any promises. The only thing anyone knows for sure is that private bids to run the plant for about $600,000 a year would have been too great a burden for users to bear.
The town initially sought bids from private firms to run the plant for three years. Those bids came in too high last June, and Ms. Sharpe sent out a new request for proposals for a 10-year deal.
"I anticipated the cost would drop substantially [with a 10-year term]," said Ms. Sharpe. "I was really disappointed in the outcome."
Ms. Sharpe was the most vocal advocate for privatizing, and she had hoped to secure a firm before she left her position as executive secretary. In June, she submitted her resignation, and last week, it was announced that she will start a new job in September as the head of business affairs for the Island school system.
But yesterday, Ms. Sharpe downplayed the predicament with the sewer operation. While she still believes privatization is a viable option in the future, she said the town needs to run the plant for about three years to know exactly how much flow it produces and what kind of revenue can be generated.
What's lacking, said Ms. Sharpe, is solid numbers. But she's convinced the town can now do the job cheaper than the private firms proposed in their bids.
"My position is we'd rather stumble through and save money in the first year than to lock users and the town into a 10-year contract," she said.
To get through the first year, she said, officials are considering hiring contract labor to run the plant. That means they are again looking at Joe Alosso, the manager at Edgartown's wastewater treatment facility who last year proposed running the Oak Bluffs plant while holding down his job in Edgartown at the same time.
That proposal landed Mr. Alosso in some hot water ethically since he was chairman of the Oak Bluffs wastewater committee when he pitched the proposal to the board. Under pressure from town officials who questioned the move, Mr. Alosso resigned from the board. But his application is still up for consideration by town officials eager to put someone in charge at the plant.
Still, there may be some objections to that plan. Two weeks ago, wastewater committee member John Leite 3rd argued that the town needs a dedicated staff in charge of the sewer facility and not one whose first responsibility lies with another town. "The town of Oak Bluffs should not take a back seat," Mr. Leite said then, asking what would happen in case of a disaster like a hurricane.
But Ms. Sharpe pointed out that since the town is not proposing to hire full-time employees with benefits, it may not be able to afford that kind of loyalty. Ms. Sharpe also said the new plant is "state-of-the-art" and will not require a lot of manpower to operate.
"We've got a gold-plated system here," she said. She added that according to experts from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the system won't need a high-grade operator so much as it will require mechanical support for such things as grinder pumps, which are an integral part of the system.
The DEP will also provide technical guidance for the town as it starts up operation of the plant, she said.
On the issue of revenue, Ms. Sharpe said simply that the town could send out advance bills to generate funds to run the system.
But given the tenor of last week's meeting with seasonal residents, that move might stir up even more anger. Summer people complained bitterly about the sewer project, already questioning why they should pay for a service they can't even use yet.