With primaries only seven weeks away, city lawmakers are expected to do the popular thing today: lower water rates by hiring a private company to manage Buffalo's water system.
A survey of Common Council members Monday indicated that they will approve a historic agreement to privatize management of a major city department.
The deal, one of the biggest private contracts in city history, is expected to result in savings to the city and an 8 percent cut in rates for water users.
Of the Council's 13 members, at least nine said they would support the proposed contract with American Anglian Environmental Technologies of Voorhees, N.J., a subsidiary of American Water Works, one of the nation's largest utilities.
But Council President James W. Pitts, an announced candidate for mayor, opposes the proposal and raises questions about the projected savings and how they will come about. Other Council members Monday turned down his bid to delay the vote until Thursday, when he wanted a special session to debate the matter.
"I will vote against it," Pitts said. He claims the proposed agreements with American Anglian are unclear about how the company will achieve its projected savings and how it will deal with city workers during some capital projects, such as a planned metering program.
Pitts also argues that the city does not need the company to achieve some of the major savings, including those resulting from lower utility rates.
Today's final vote follows months of debate over the pros and cons of the five-year, $50 million contract. From Day One, the deal has pitted city unions against the Masiello administration.
The city's Water Board, which owns and operates the system, is expected to meet after the Council vote and OK the contract.
"This is a win-win-win," said Masten Council Member Byron W. Brown.
The wins, according to Brown, include lower water rates, better management of the system and protection for city employees. The contract includes American's promise of no layoffs for the next five years.
If approved, the agreement will mark the city's first attempt at introducing privatization into a large city department. It also marks a fallback from Mayor Masiello's initial proposal for a total privatization of the aging water system.
Masiello backed off that idea when Council members balked at privatizing unionized city employees.
The unions agreed to a compromise that results in American managing the department but allows workers to remain public employees with all the protection and benefits offered by their current contract.
The deal also gives American its long-awaited foothold in Western New York. The company has made no secret of its interest in Buffalo's sewer system, as well as water and sewer systems in other municipalities.
News Staff Reporter Thomas J. Dolan contributed to this article.