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Mohan eyes privatizing as means to cut costs

Fresh from a bruising political struggle to enact his first town budget, Amherst Supervisor Satish B. Mohan is proposing to cut costs by privatizing the management of the town's sewage treatment plant, compost facility and three town-owned golf courses.

The proposals, expected to be introduced at today's Town Board meeting, set an ambitious timetable that calls for public hearings in January and February and -- in the case of the town's three golf courses -- the naming of new private managers on March 5.

All of the facilities involved lose money or cost the town too much to operate, Mohan believes, but he said he expects opposition from other Town Board members and unions representing town workers.
"We do not act. We cannot act," he said, repeating his criticism that some Town Board members tend to obstruct changes that he believes are necessary.

The proposals came as a surprise to Council Member William L. Kindel, who, for the last six years or more, has been calling for the town to privatize the very same facilities.

"I can hope. Maybe I have found a new ally for some of the cost savings I have been advocating," Kindel said.

Under Mohan's plan, the town would continue to own all the facilities but would contract with private companies to manage, maintain and operate them. It would also set prices, operating hours and other conditions.

The proposals involve:

* Plant 16, 455 Tonawanda Creek Road, the town's waste water treatment plant, where, despite the town's $150 million in investments, operations and maintenance cost taxpayers $18 million a year. Under private management "there is a potential of fully automating" the plant and restructuring some operations" to cut costs, Mohan's motion says. It calls for a hearing Feb. 27 and sets an April 2 deadline for proposals from would-be contractors.

* Audubon Golf Course, at 500 Maple Road; Audubon Par 3, at 475 Maple Road; and Oakwood, at 3575 Tonawanda Creek Road. The courses have been unable to break even or make a profit. In a related motion, Mohan says the courses "are used by a very small minority of the town's residents and current fees are lower than other courses in the town."

* The compost facility at 560 Smith Road, which continues to run at a loss "year after year," Mohan said. Currently, the deficit is about $500,000, but Mohan says he believes a private contractor can make money because Amherst's composted materials are highly rated.

According to Kindel, Mohan is more likely to create opposition by introducing his proposals without talking to those involved, such as town workers.

"I'm concerned about rushing things before the groundwork is laid. We need cooperation, not confrontation," he said.

Kindel proposed as a first step in dealing with privatization that the town set up an enterprise fund to determine the costs of running the golf courses and the compost facility.
Mohan was ill Friday and not available to comment.

Indications are that town workers and their unions will oppose Mohan's proposals.

Joseph O'Donnell, attorney for the union representing Plant 16 employees, said the proposals are "very much a surprise. I don't believe any of the union leaders know about this."

e-mail: tdolan@buffnews.com

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