By Doug Hissom Special to Published Nov 30, 2007 at 5:12 AM

It's too important an issue to remain silent.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District is set to continue its coziness with outside operators -- in the most recent incarnation with Veolia, a French-run Houston-based wastewater treatment plant operator.

The MMSD board decided to dump its deal with United Water after Veolia agreed to charge the district less for its services over the next 10-year deal. United Water's tenure included legal and illegal sewage dumping into Milwaukee's waterways. Staff cuts and operator errors were in part to blame. It paid the district about $335.4 million in a 10-year deal that's about to expire.

While it appears the Veolia contract is a done deal, some are hoping that the MMSD board will look into bringing the sewage operation back in-house. That is not the recommendation by MMSD executive director Kevin Shafer, who says that would be more expensive. It is, however, the hope of several environmental groups that have closely watched MMSD in action.

In a detailed four-page letter sent out this week, the groups -- Friends of Milwaukee's Rivers, Midwest Environmental Advocates, the Sierra Club and the Alliance for Great Lakes -- note some questionable issues in the proposed contract. While details of the contract have not fully been disclosed by the District, the groups suggest the plan is flawed in several ways:

They contend that the current monthly bonus system for not having overflows isn't a deterrent and that operators should be fined for overflows. The groups also contend that the bonuses created a situation in which test results could be manipulated to show the waste was cleaner than it actually was.

The groups say that the new contract allows the operator to pay only the first $15,000 of any equipment repair, essentially rewarding contractors for not maintaining equipment since they don't have to pay for major maintenance.

The new deal will have the district paying for 75 percent of its energy costs, which was essentially the savings in the previous contract. Opponents of the deal argue that if the district is paying for the bulk of its energy costs anyway, why go private?

Staffing cuts have led to problems with maintenance, morale and lack of supervision.

District officials were kept in the dark over various malfunctions and no mechanisms exist to penalize the private operator when they happened.

"We have significant concerns with continued privatization of wastewater treatment services at MMSD and encourage the commission to seriously consider returning operation and maintenance to a public system," according to the letter.

The board will decide Monday.

Overseeing bids is costly: It's a big contract and that's why one Milwaukee alderman wants some independent input on who gets it.

The contract for the city's parking ticket collection is up in May and it's worth millions to anyone who wants to step to the plate. The private operator is charged with collecting tickets and pursuing scofflaws and gets a cut of the action for its efforts. Ald. Bob Bauman has proposed that the Department of Public Works also go to an outside consultant to help the DPW put together a fool-proof bidding process. His plan would spend up to $80,000 for the advice. His resolution cites that the parking ticket contract is complex enough to justify the costs.

The folks in charge of the DPW bidding process have come under occasional fire for questionable procedures. One example is seen in the Milwaukee Police Department radio system, which doesn't allow communication with other law enforcement agencies. DPW bidding proposals asked for a system that was too restrictive. Some parties involved in that spat suggested DPW set it up so that the deal was a given to go to one manufacturer. A recent plan to job out the operations of city parking lots was halted by one alderman after the bidding process was found geared toward one operator and wasn't considered entirely open.

More High-Rise Outlooks: A tiny parcel of land Dowtown along the Milwaukee River has yet another developer seeing high-rise profits. The city-owned land at 1027 N. Edison St., along the Highland Street Pedestrian bridge, was first eyed for a glass-lined 30-plus-story condo project before the Downtown condo boom began.

That was way back when John Norquist was mayor and the project was his effort to jump-start the empty-nester invasion of the central business district -- visionary at the time. The million-dollar dwellings never materialized due to financing and some neighborhood opposition.

Anything built on the narrow parcel would overwhelm the row-house homes directly to the north, a likely point of contention for neighbors who could see their property values plummet. Planning for only one level of parking may also raise a few questions from the already parking challenged neighborhood.

The new plan is for a $10.6 million eight-story building with a restaurant and banquet hall on the first two floors, offices on the third floor and condos on the rest. Russell Davis, who owns Café Vecchio Mondo, which would virtually be in sight of the new building, will own this one as well. The city will consider selling him the property for $540,000 at a meeting next week. Davis would have to jump into construction within three months of the sale, pushing him into the development fray of the Park East Freeway Corridor much faster than projects that sit idle just blocks away. He'd have 18 months to finish the building.

Banking on Prime: It pays to have an "in," and in the case of Prime Financial Credit Union that "in" is in the bank accounts of city workers. Prime Financial won the bidding rights to set up shop in the Zeidler Municipal Building, which will house an office and an ATM. Prime Financial is used by about 35 percent of city employees. It will pay the city $477,959.92 over the next 10 years for the rights to lobby space. The city would get no money from ATM transactions in the Zeidler Building, unlike the situation with most ATM setups.

Election Engineering: It's a strange way to look at audit results, but there always seems to be a lot of weirdness under the dome in Madison. A Legislative Audit Bureau investigation found that the state's effort to computerize voter registration efforts is woefully inadequate despite the fact that a private contractor, Accenture, has been given more than two years to get it together.

One way the LAB suggests that voters could be more easily registered is that municipal clerks keep records of voters' birth dates.

That had state Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) jumping up and down over one of her pet proposals.

"What better way to obtain the birth dates of all voters than a driver's license or state-issued photo ID?" asked Lazich. Gov. Doyle has vetoed a voter photo ID three times, citing the fact that it would limit peoples' right to vote.

But after hearing Milwaukee Election Commission Director Sue Edman, there are a lot more important issues topping the voting agenda than IDs. Edman told a city committee this week that the database set up by Accenture is too slow, complex, and time consuming to be used accurately by the February primary.

She essentially said the city was going to look to the state Elections Board (soon to be known as the Government Accountability Board) -- which chose Accenture in a questionable bidding process -- to bail it out. 

Doug Hissom Special to
Doug Hissom has covered local and state politics for 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper.

An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe.

He lives in Bay View.