North Miami - NMB

Negotiations to begin for outsourcing of regional Northeast Dade water utility

Mayor George Vallejo, center
Mayor George Vallejo, center Miami Herald Staff

A private engineering firm is one step closer to operating a regional utility that provides drinking water to nearly 200,000 in Northeast Miami-Dade after North Miami Beach commissioners voted Monday night to try to negotiate an outsourcing agreement with CH2M Hill.

The vote, which passed 4 to 2, came at the end of a tense, specially called meeting during which protesters jeered Mayor George Vallejo and police were called upon several times to remove people from the audience. Opponents of the proposal warned that a private company shouldn’t be trusted with the public’s water supply, but city administrators said their own employees allowed their system to become disorganized and fall into disrepair.

“Sometimes the truth is difficult to accept. But what is the alternative?” City Manager Ana Garcia asked. “Our residents and our water clients deserve the best.”

The city’s utility, dubbed NMB Water, includes a wastewater system and the Norwood Water Treatment plant, which pumps clean water to about 180,000 people each day. The facility is regional, with most of its accounts in Golden Beach, Sunny Isles Beach, and parts of Aventura, Miami Gardens and unincorporated Miami-Dade.

The city has won awards for its water quality in recent years. But new utility director Jeff Thompson and a consultant paid to dig into the system’s flaws say the utility has some massive problems, some of which contributed to a pump failure and boil-water notice last week. During Monday’s meeting, a CH2M Hill representative said the water plant currently falls about 4 million gallons short of meeting the 22 million gallon-per-day consumption rate of its customers.

“It looks like maybe the wool had been pulled over the eyes of previous administrations for a long time,” Vallejo said.

Hoping to improve the situation, the city signed a no-bid management assistance contract with CH2M Hill in October by piggybacking off a competitive solicitation in Sumter County in Central Florida. Shortly after, the city asked private firms to submit their qualifications for a more comprehensive contract that would see a private company completely take over the system’s operations and staff, though not its ownership or its rates.

The proposal has been controversial. Union members, Democratic party leaders and environmental justice activists have ripped the city for considering the “privatization” of its utility. Last week, City Attorney Jose Smith confirmed that the FBI opened an investigation into allegations of wrongdoing, but found nothing amiss.

Still, on Monday, a standing-room-only crowd urged commissioners to keep their utility under the guidance of the public. Some current and former members of North Miami Beach’s Public Utilities Commission criticized North Miami Beach, with one questioning whether the city intentionally neglected its Norwood Plant.

“While I certainly agree you need to address the needs of the water plant and utility ... the hidden agenda of contracting out the operations of plant and utility has been a deliberate process orchestrated over the past few years,” former PUC member Chuck Cook said.

With Monday’s vote, city administrators will attempt to negotiate a management contract with CH2M Hill, ranked first among four competing firms. If a deal can’t be reached, the city can try with second-ranked U.S. Water/Wade Trim, and third-ranked Veolia Water North America-South. Whatever deal is reached must return to the City Commission for approval.