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Privatizing water, sewer discussed in special session

Three-dozen people attended a special meeting of the Olean Common Council's Strategic Planning Committee on Tuesday afternoon to discuss privatization of the city's water and sewer infrastructure.

American Water Works, a private business that is a supplier of municipal water and sewer facilities, had been called in to advise the committee of possible options for privatization, but representatives were forced to cancel their appearance Monday due to a scheduling conflict.

Strategic Planning Committee Chairman Earl McElfresh told the fellow members and the audience in a prepared statement that the city's financial health requires responsible action involving its resources. McElfresh said the search for alternatives continues despite the failure of a shared-services proposal for the water authority to receive support from neighboring communities and it is unrelated to an intermunicipal Shared-Services Committee that continues to search for ways to regionalize public services.

McElfresh said the Strategic Planning Committee will look at the possibilities for the "maximized use and subsequent growth of the water plant and sewer facilities" in an effort that is "probably the most exhilarating and exciting challenge that the city and people of Olean have faced since the Flood of 1942. . . ."
Olean businessman Jim Stitt remarked that a privatized water service would have to be more profitable when run as a business. Greater Olean Area Chamber of Commerce director John Sayegh, who is also the chief officer of the Cattaraugus Empire Zone, urged caution. Other audience comments pointed to the likelihood that there shouldn't be any job loss and that a privatized water supplier would be taxed and governed by the Public Utilities Commission.
"It was a meeting of the minds, and the input came from instructive and capable people," McElfresh said of the session. "It wasn't like, 'Yay, let's do this.' "

The committee will continue to hold discussions on the water privatization issue.
Later Tuesday, the Common Council met in an executive session to discuss a tentative contract agreement with the city's Professional Firefighters Association, which Mayor David Carucci said is expected to vote on ratification within three weeks. The contract expired in June 2007, and an impasse in negotiations was declared in January 2008. A Public Employment Relations Board mediator has held two meetings with both sides to hammer out the agreement.
Also, Tuesday, Carucci reported on the stimulus funding possibilities that were spelled out in a session of the New York State Council of Mayors held Sunday and Monday in Albany.

He said there are several options for funding but he remains committed to pursuing an application for the $1.5 billion that is set aside in the Department of Transportation for infrastructure and transportation.

Carucci said projects in that category should be valued at $20 million or more, which fits the city's urgent need for sewer improvements. Other economic development projects that might be eligible for other stimulus funds are the former Agway Felmont and St. Francis Hospital properties.

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