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It was one of the happiest days of Kevin Helfer's life.

No, not the birth this week of Helfer's fifth child.

It's a different sort of birth that Helfer, the Common Council's lone Republican and its main run-government-like-a-business guy, is thrilled about -- a new way of doing business in the city, a way that revived Indianapolis, Philadelphia and other places once thought to be permanently disabled.

"It's a banner day," said Helfer. "This is what I've been hoping for in the three years I've been here."

This week, the Council voted to let a private company manage the city's Water Department.

It's a huge injection of common sense, a step toward running the city sanely and repairing the confidence of its customers -- the taxpayers.

That's what they are, customers. People who weigh schools, crime, snowplowing, garbage pickup, taxes and the rest in deciding where to live.

In the last few decades, hundreds of thousands of them decided to live in the suburbs. The more businesses and people who left, the more taxes those who were left behind had to pay.

"There's no big solution in the city," said Helfer. "It's a lot of little things like this. The bottom line is to save the customer money. If we don't, we won't have a city."

The water deal is a leap in the right direction: (1) If it works with water, then it can work with sewer and streets sanitation and down the line; (2) It cuts water bills by 8 percent; (3) Nobody was managing the department.

There used to be a director, usually some higher-up's pal, campaign contributor or relative. With one or two exceptions, their grasp of water began and ended with the understanding that you could drink it. One former director reportedly asked a work crew digging up a street to point out the hot water pipe. Mayor Masiello vaporized the job a couple of years ago. So, lately, it wasn't just lonely at the top in the Water Department. It was nobody.

Technically, Public Works Commissioner Joe Giambra runs water -- along with a boatload of other chores. The private company, American Anglian, will bring in a handful of managers to do what the beleaguered Giambra tries to do.

This might have gone one step further and one step better. City Comptroller Joel Giambra said the Water Department unions wanted to bid against the private companies but couldn't get the city to shell out for an outside reorganization study. A public employees' union ought to be able to underbid a private company, because it doesn't pay taxes or need to make money.

"I still think public unions can deliver the service better (than a private company)," said the comptroller, "if they're part of a competitive process."

American Anglian will presumably make the department run more like a Miata than a Model T. The union agreed to talk about changing work rules, in return for no layoffs.

Obvious management goals are a staggered workweek, so you don't have to pay somebody overtime every time a pipe bursts on a weekend; smaller crews, so you don't send seven workers to every job; and, through attrition, slicing one-third of the work force.

If a private company was run the way the Water Department has been operated, it would've been crushed quicker than you can say Woolworth's.

It's not the union's fault. Politicians in this Democrat-heavy city historically haven't played tough at the table. As one Council member put it, "We negotiated lousy contracts. We're Democrats, and unions support Democrats."

The city can't camouflage the waste and bloat anymore. The money pipeline from Washington and Albany is drying up. Customers keep leaving the city. Taxpayers shell out more for less.

Word is American Anglian will reward performance with bonuses and open the management door to good workers. It brings a revolutionary concept in city government: incentive.

"The way it is now," said Helfer, "the same things happen whether you do the job well or shabby. Some of the workers I talked to like the idea of bonuses and being able to move up."

Paul DeFranks, as head of the white-collar union, helped hammer out the deal. He says there's still distrust among workers about City Hall. But if this works, DeFranks (who recently stepped down as union head) sees better days ahead.

"Once the men see there's no hidden agenda, no layoffs, that they still get a check, the doubts start to go away," he said.

The change should work for workers.

"The Water Department was neglected for so long," said DeFranks. "There was no director, no improvements. The city chose not to effectively manage it. These people (American Anglian) know the business. We're kind of excited."

If it works, it's just a beginning.

"Let's say there are too many sanitation workers," said Helfer. "We can retrain some of them to do housing demolitions. That way, we don't have to pay outside contractors."

Today, a new deal on water. Tomorrow? Maybe a city that gives its customers their money's worth.

It sounds like America.

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