OCWA takes over maintenance of Renfrew’s water treatment plants

Renfrew -- Starting January 1, 2024, the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA), which is currently responsible for water-plant operations for the town of Renfrew, will add water distribution and wastewater collection to its list of responsibilities after town council approved a 10-year agreement with the non-profit Crown agency.

The agreement will result in three town employees being transferred from their current unionized CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) positions to OPSEU (Ontario Public Service Employees Union) employees with OCWA as their employer.

According to a report by town treasurer Erin Broome, the services agreement with OCWA for these services will result in a net decrease in staffing of 4,784 hours.

Overall, it is projected there will be an estimated savings of $239,089 for water, $21,417 for wastewater, and $70,000 for taxation.

The groundwork for the new agreement began in April when council directed CAO Robert Tremblay to formally request a quote from OCWA for a contract which included the additional services that are currently maintained by Renfrew town staff.

After receiving legal advice in September regarding potential staffing changes and labour relations if a new contract was negotiated, the Infrastructure, Public Works and Asset Management Committee submitted a report to council that recommended the proposal. Council received the draft services agreement in closed session on October 24, along with comments and responses on the draft.

At the same time, council also directed staff to phase out the practice of two staff per snow plow (“wingman”) effective the 2023-2024 winter season. Four staff were impacted by the elimination of this practice, one of which is the town mechanic who will now only be responsible for fleet maintenance.

By extending OCWA’s services to include water distribution and wastewater collection, three corresponding staff will be transferred to OCWA. This incorporates the reduction in staff as a result of the elimination of the wingman practice. Terms of the CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) Collective Agreement apply for any impacted staff currently involved with operations.

OCWA has operated the town’s plants for many years and the current contract expires on December 31, 2025. Under the current agreement, the town was required to notify OCWA by December 31, 2024 if the existing contract for treatment (plants) was not going to be renewed.

The estimated operational costs for OCWA is broken down into four major sections. Water treatment is estimated at $655,703 with water distribution pegged at $206,144; wastewater treatment is $808,060 and wastewater collection is $173,801 bringing all estimated costs to $1,843,707.

Council Input

When Mayor Tom Sidney introduced the resolution coming out of a 140-minute closed session, some of the councillors spoke of the difficult choices presented to them with the new agreement.

Reeve Peter Emon said a change in operations and staffing comes with challenges.

“In speaking with each member of council, everybody struggled with this and comes at it with a slightly different perspective, and I think the most important perspective that we all agree on is, first of all we want to maintain a level of service,” he said. “Secondly, we all want it to be safe, and third, we want to be able to invest in our infrastructure going forward. I think the options before us allow us to continue to do that.

“I think if we remember that those are the things that guided us in conversations towards our decisions, whatever the decision ends up being. I think that’s the important piece.”

Councillor Kyle Cybulski did not mince words when he gave his opinion regarding potential financial savings with the proposed agreement.

“I’m just going to take a position and say it publicly that I don’t trust the financials that are presented and I don’t like the direction that was presented and I feel that the town could probably operate for many years at its current status quo,” he said. “I am not comfortable moving forward with this, but I will leave it up to the rest of the table.”

Councillor Andrew Dick spoke of the long term effects of this proposed deal.

“Obviously this is one of our biggest decisions as council in the last year that we have done,” he began. “I spoke to a lot of people on this and the bottom line is, and I just want to be clear on this, I was voted in to hold people accountable, transparency to this community and I feel moving in this direction is going to do that. I think the level of service, and no fault to anybody in the past, I think level of service is going to be bar none.

“I feel confident moving in this direction…I feel the people who voted me in would also recommend we go in this direction. We’ve done a lot of big changes in this town, changes that probably should have been done 20 years ago…we are not always going to agree on a big topic, but I think this is the last of our big shake-ups in this town and I think in 2024 we are going to do great things. But tonight, I know which way I’m going to vote.”

Councillor John McDonald commended his fellow councillors for allowing different opinions to be heard when debating this issue.

“We had a very thorough discussion of all aspects of this situation and I am just thankful to this group that we have here that we can have them and we will be voting shortly,” he said.

Councillor Clint McWhirter said the final savings forecast is minimal and does not warrant a change.

“I agree with Councillors Dick and McDonald that we have had great conversations, and the public didn’t see it which is probably just as well,” he said. “I have no doubt OCWA will do an excellent job as they have done an excellent job up to date. There were a lot of pros and cons to this and probably the biggest con to me is there doesn’t seem to be enough savings in making a change just for the sake of making a change.”

Mayor Sidney thanked council for their patience and for each of the members to express their points of view without resorting to negative comments.

“Some decisions made at this table are not easy and we understand that we have to make a decision based on the information provided,” he said. “I say to people all the time that staff have to make the Bonnechere River drinkable and that is no easy task and say kudos to anybody that works in water. It is an important vital role and every councillor at this table has done their homework.”

A recorded vote was held and those opposed were Councillors Cybulski and McWhirter. Voting in favour of the new agreement were Councillors Dick, Legris and McDonald along with Reeve Emon and Mayor Sidney.

Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader