By Doug Hissom Special to Published Mar 23, 2007 at 5:28 AM

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District is ready to entertain suitors to run the district’s wastewater operations for the next decade or so. Its first 10-year contract with United Water to run the facility will end early next year.

MMSD staff decided to offer the opportunity to bid for the job to only two companies, which happen to be the largest sewage plant operators in the world -- United Water and Veolia Water North America -- which are both owned by French conglomerates.

It was only after lobbying by area unions to MMSD board members that a third candidate, EMC, Inc., a Missouri-based operator owned by British interests, will be considered for bidding at an MMSD meeting next week.

United Water got the contract 10 years ago with the promise it would save the district $140 million over the 10 years. It runs the district’s two sewage treatment plants and Milorganite facility. According to MMSD spokesperson Bill Graffin the figure is still accurate. United Water was to be paid $298.5 million over the course of the contract, not including incentives and penalties.

But since United Water took over MMSD, the operation has been plagued with high profile gaffes and sewage releases since the deep tunnel came online in the mid-1990s. Sewage flowed into the lake by the billions. Lawsuits were been filed. In once instance, 107 million gallons of untreated sewage was discharged because the company shut off sewer tunnel pumps during peak electricity times to save $515,000. Jobs were cut.

Of course, when you’re talking about the world’s two biggest in the sewage business, there’s bound to be some weird track record. (United Water is owned by the French Firm, Suez.)

Since getting the Milwaukee contract United Water has lost two high-profile deals in Indianapolis and Atlanta. In some cities, the two giants run both sewage and drinking water operations. (The City of Milwaukee controls the drinking water in these parts.)

In Atlanta, bad water forced residents to boil first. After getting the contract it was discovered that United Water treated the city’s mayor to a $12,000 Parisian holiday. United Water was also accused of neglecting basic maintenance, violating federal water standards and billed the city for work that was never done. The mayor ended up indicted in federal court.

In New Jersey, United Water failed to warn about high radium levels in the water supply. And in Indianapolis, before getting the Milwaukee contract, United Water flushed bad water into the White River leading to a massive fish kill.

Veolia didn’t fair much better in Indianapolis after taking over the contract from Untied Water. It caused its own massive fish kill and was investigated by a federal grand jury after shutting down the wastewater plant there. The company was also accused of falsifying water quality data. That led to that city having to boil water as well. The story goes that 40,000 school kids were given a vacation because they couldn’t drink the water. In the first year complaints tripled and it mailed out 15,000 bills to the wrong address.

In New Orleans, Veolia illegally discharged sewage into the Mississippi River dozens of times and the president of the local operation was convicted of bribing local sewer board officials to renew the contract.

At first blush EMC, Inc., seems to lack an infamous public track record for being around 27 years. It was bought by British-based BOC, a long-time maker of industrial gasses. BOC has a track record of leaving contaminated industrial sites behind. The obvious appeal to local unions in pushing for EMC is the company’s emphasis that it believes in honoring all local union contracts and a promise from EMC to return union workers to MMSD positions that were eliminated by United Water.

The MMSD board considers EMC’s credentials on Monday. The decision the contract could be made in fall.

More Picking on PIC: Gerard Randall did his best version of assuring his troops that “it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings” this week. The beleaguered chief of the Private Industry Council, the job-training arm of Milwaukee County that’s facing a takeover bid by Mayor Tom Barrett, gathered PIC staff urging them to lobby local officials to keep the PIC status quo if they truly believed in the cause.

One card Randall is playing is that the staff is desperately worried they’ll lose their jobs. The mood in the room, however, was described as “solemn” and it doesn’t appear that many will pick up the torch for Randall’s version of PIC.

Barrett is lobbying the state to have the city get federal job-training funds that currently go to PIC–some $14 million worth. PIC is a quasi-public operation run by the Republican Randall. The board overseeing PIC is appointed by Republican County Exec Scott Walker.

The change would give Barrett control of the board. Despite several glaring shortcomings in the PIC operation of late, Randall is portraying the move mainly as partisan politics. Gov. Jim Doyle has already said he favors the switch to happen on July 1.

As the decision nears, Randall also sent out a mass mailing to local movers and shakers pointing out PIC’s achievements over the years. An e-mail contains 49 pages of attachments, likely not dinner table reading for anyone who gets it. A state board will make its recommendation next week on where the money goes.

The public comment period on the changes ends at the end of this week. Randall has also been on a seemingly endless media tour, making his regular rounds on conservative talk-show television, pitching PIC on Milwaukee’s leading black radio station, and doing an appearance on the televised “4th Street Forum.”

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Labor Press released this week an extensive investigative report on what Randall’s been up to at PIC and whether he’s earning his $159,000 annual salary (up from $98,000 since 1998).

The newspaper found: PIC overspending and underperforming in youth job programs, spending about $31,000 per person in one case; a bloated travel budget for staff; a top-heavy administration making substantial salaries for an agency that is supposed to be devoted to getting people out of poverty; and the questionable purchase of a building on North Avenue which has tied up job training funds in mortgage payments.

Purchasing the North Avenue building ironically came at a time when Randall and PIC were under fire for having office space in a high-rent Schlitz Park building. Randall also was rapped for his frequent office remodeling, according to a PIC insider. PIC also lost a key federal youth training grant in the millions of dollars, because it didn’t do the work to keep it. Staff layoffs and a severe scaling back of the program were the result.

The Labor Press reported that union representatives on the board have stopped going to meetings because they were frustrated by the performance of the front office. The board has lacked a quorum at its meetings more than half the time, but not just because union reps stopped showing.

The takeover bid comes at a time when PIC resembles more of a crumbling entity than a vibrant source of job training. As was reported in part here last week (with certain clarifications):

  • The agency has no money left for the last quarter of its fiscal year for job training, meaning certain programs will be stagnant from April through June with possible staff lay-offs.
  • As of March 5, all new job training was cut off. The order affects only adults.
  • An order came down early this month that free bus tickets–desperately needed by job seekers to get to either training or their job -- were not to be issued, leaving willing workers stranded. Within the past week, however, Randall changed the policy, telling staff that money was reallocated to allow PIC to supply a limited number of tickets. The tickets will now only go to clients involved in job training and not for people needing transportation for job interviews and job placement.
  • Orientation continues, but occupation and basic skills training -- to help people apply and obtain jobs -- have been cut off.

Reports are that PIC vendors are also getting nervous and in some cases have put a low priority on fulfilling PIC contracts.

Fair Play Urged for Fouling Water: The great Miller Park sewage leak brought more interested parties to the sewer pipe debate than just baseball enthusiasts, environmentalists and politicians. After it was discovered that the ballpark was allowing human waste to flow freely into the Menomonee River, the state Dairy Business Association raised some interesting questions about fair play.

"If a Wisconsin dairy farmer had a discharge like Miller Park, the environmental community would actively seek damages through DNR clean water rules and they would recommend the matter to be referred to the attorney general for prosecution,” said association executive director Laurie Fisher.

Getting to the Root of Canal Audit: Some Milwaukee aldermen continue to fume after an audit of the Canal Street project found budget overruns of some $33 million. It’s a key road in the Menomonee Valley redevelopment vision.

The street’s extension was price was $20 million, but the bottom line ended up around $52 million. The audit, by City Comptroller Wally Morics, found aldermen weren’t entirely privy to ballooning costs because the Department of Public Works shifted money from other road projects to cover the tab.

Since the slight of hand was pointed out earlier this month, aldermanic frustration and mistrust have spilled over into Common Council meetings with Barrett administration officials.

The Canal Street plan was actually started by former Mayor John Norquist. Nonetheless, Barrett’s minions are left to get slapped up.

At a recent meeting of the Public Safety Committee over the cost of a new police class, Ald. Tony Zielinski accused city budget director Mark Nicolini of “lies” when talking of his research on the cost of the class -- a charge rarely heard among the formal confines of public officials. Allusions were quickly made to the Canal Street deal as well. Nicolini refused to cower and let the slur slide with some direct words to the chair.

Nonetheless, Zielinski and Alds. Jim Bohl, Joe Dudzik and Bob Donovan have asked Barrett to check into rolling a few heads among the civil servants involved in the project under the Norquist administration and are still on city payroll, “given the serious nature of the allegations raised” in the audit.

Bohl says DPW officials should apologize and called the response from the department a “deafening silence.”

The Canal Street cost overruns come four years after the city and DPW were found in the tens of millions over-budget on the 3rd District police station and a recent $20 million boost to the Park East freeway bill. Ald. Michael Murphy, who chairs the Finance Committee and asked for the police station audit, noted that the comptroller’s office has again made several of the same recommendations for the DPW that it made after the police station debacle.

Know Your Rights: The state Supreme Court ruled this week that odd movements made by a person during a traffic stop don’t give police the right to search the vehicle. The issue stems from a Racine police stop in 2003 for an expired registration bust. During the stop the driver made a movement to reach under the front seat, which police claimed was an attempt to conceal a weapon, so they insisted on a search. Instead they found some pot, but an appeals court ruled the search violated his rights. Conservative judges Jon Wilcox, who is quitting this year, and Pat Roggensack, dissented.

The Powers that Be: With a new party in charge under the Capitol dome in D.C., the stock of our two local Republican congressman has dropped significantly. But even though Democrat Gwen Moore is now partying with the majority she still has a ways to go to gain some respect, according to the so-called “Power Rankings” put together by, a Web site that studies all things congressional.

Menomonee Falls Republican James Sensenbrenner took the biggest plunge, falling from the no. 3 most-influential and powerful position in Congress last year, to no. 265 after the recent elections put the Dems in charge. Sensenbrenner was ranked the 56th most powerful among fellow party members.

Janesville Republican Paul Ryan actually topped Sensenbrenner on the power scale, getting the nod at no. 187 in Congress and no. 16 in his party. He was ranked no. 69 last year. Moore, who was ranked at no. 425 last year, literally at the bottom of the heap, edged up to no. 281 now that her party is in control -- still a ways to go to catch the area GOP reps. She clocked in at no. 215 in her own party.

Rice is Nice: Wild rice may soon be growing again in the Menomonee Valley. Thanks to a Wisconsin Coastal Management grant for $100,000 and a $100,000 match by the City of Milwaukee, a rice island could be developed in the Menomonee River that will not only bring the valley back to its roots (As we all know, Menomonee means wild rice in the Potawatomi language and the valley used to be full of it.), but also keep a floating island of trash from developing on a man-altered corner of the river near Emmber Lane.

The corner collects everything from soda bottles to plastic liners to used condoms and the presence of the island -- along with a pier for canoe and kayak launching -- will keep the trash at bay, making it easier for a river skimmer to pick it up.

“It makes flotsam fun,” exudes Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper for the Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers. She says the island will provide for fish habitat and badly needed green space in the valley. A small park with native plants and a mini-riverwalk are also included in the plans. The total price is expected to be about $250,000.

The City of Milwaukee is expected to match the grant. About $100,000 of the city share is expected to be paid through a sewer maintenance fund. The Potawatomi, Cargill and the Menomonee Valley Partners will also likely contribute money to cover the rest of the $50,000 for the effort, Nenn says.

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.