Hundreds signed a petition in opposition to utility privatization. Boone moved forward with the plan anyway.
Editor's note: This article has been updated due to an error. Councilmembers Elijah Stines and Holly Stecker voted no against the privatization of Boone's water utility management.
More than 200 people signed a petition to halt the privatization of Boone's water utility operations, but their pleas didn't stop the city from moving forward with the plan earlier this month.
With a Dec. 6 vote of 5-2 — with City Council members Elijah Stines and Holly Stecker dissenting — Boone's water utility services will be managed by a private company.
Stecker said she didn't see the move as necessary. Council member Greg Piklapp, who voted in favor of the proposal, said the opposition comes from misunderstanding.
"Every time I've been contacted on it, I've explained why we're looking at it," Piklapp said. "They're, like, 'So we're not losing control of our rates and our system?' And the answer's no."
'There wasn't one person who spoke in favor of it'
Under the plan, Boone will maintain ownership of the city's physical infrastructure, but U.S. Water Services Corporation, also known as USW Utility Group, will manage the operations and maintenance of the city's water and wastewater treatment plants as an independent contractor.
The contract will last five years, running March 1, 2022 through June 30, 2027. Grimes, Fort Dodge and Chariton also use U.S. Water to manage their cities' water services.
The total proposed monthly cost for the contract's first term (March 1, 2022-June 30, 2022) will be $134,074. The total annual cost will be $1,608,888 — about $8,000 more, annually, than the current budget for the city's water and wastewater facilities.
According to a Change.org petition, the plan will raise costs and current employees will be forced to reapply for their jobs with no guarantee that they'll be kept on staff.
"This will have an impact on these employees and their families," according to the petition. "Our city employees who work in these facilities take a lot of pride in their work. They work hard for the citizens of Boone."
Piklapp told the Ames Tribune that every Boone water employee will have priority to be hired by U.S. Water.
Opponents to the plan were also wary that U.S. Water operators will not be required to live in Boone, but current policy only requires employees to live within 30 miles of the city, Boone City Administrator William Skare said Dec. 6.
Piklapp said staffing levels have fallen as the city's budget has gotten tighter in recent years, although those costs have been offset by software that makes the plants more efficient.
Residents say the public and water utility employees should have been consulted before the city moved forward with its plans. One asked who would be hurt by postponing the decision.
In a motion seconded by council member Elijah Stines, Stecker asked the council to postpone its decision, but the move was voted down.
"My thought process is that we are still we were a couple of years away from the department heads actually retiring," Stecker told the Tribune. "So this was not a necessity."
She also took issue with the fact that the contract never went out to bid and that U.S. Water was the first offer, arguing the council opted to spend more money than they currently spend.
"I have not had one person come to me and say, 'I think this is a good idea,' " Stecker said. "There wasn't one person who spoke in favor of it in the public meetings that I attended."
Council member Terry Moorman said the city has also been plagued by a shortage of qualified staff and that the contract with U.S. Water will bring fresh ideas to an old problem. If any of the city's current employees leave their posts, he added, the issue will only become even more timely.
"This isn't special to Boone — this is going on around the country," Moorman said.
But privatization brings its own slew of issues.
Arguments differ for and against privatization
According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the privatization of a water utility can often generate cost savings in labor efficiency and management. However, it can also affect local employment and utilities' eligibility for capital improvement grants.
And, often, the poorest customers are most impacted by the change.
Private utilities charge households 33% more for water, on average, according to Bloomberg News.
In the U.S., 15% of households are served by private water companies, according to Next City, but for other utilities, private ownership is the norm.
Private, investor-owned utilities power about 70% of American homes, according to the New York Times, though a movement formed in 2012 of municipalities looking to take back power over electricity.
Once a utility is privatized, reestablishing a public utility is no easy feat, factoring in the costs and the power that private utilities often yield.
Public water utility ownership has its own drawbacks, though, too. According to a paper by professors from Texas A&M and Georgetown, governments violate safe drinking water and clear air laws more frequently than private firms and face fewer penalities for doing so.
Ultimately, Boone will maintain ownership of its water utility and only the management will be taken over. Piklapp told the Tribune that privatizing operations will bring more manpower and help the city meet Iowa Department of Natural Resources water quality requirements.
Ten years ago, Boone was placed on a list of communities to be issued a water quality mandate by the DNR; the improvements, Piklapp said, will require millions of dollars in improvements.
"They're (Boone residents) least open to it as long as the elected officials for the community are not losing control of the water rates," Piklapp said. "We're not selling off any hard infrastructure like pipes or plants. They see an option to at least give it a try."