Wastewater officials in Oak Bluffs say that an article on Tuesday's annual town meeting warrant would bring necessary changes to the department, some critics are questioning the logic of a proposal that would hand considerably more power to the wastewater commission.
The article asks the town to adopt sections of state law that would permit the wastewater commission to hire its own staff, borrow money and take title to the wastewater facility and discharge system. If approved, the wastewater commission would be allowed borrow money and issue contracts to department employees.
Proponents of the article argue the change would streamline the wastewater department.
"It's not about shifting power, it's about creating a more efficient wastewater department and a more efficient wastewater treatment plant," said superintendent Joseph Alosso.
Mr. Alosso said the ability to award contracts helps the wastewater plant to be fully staffed, even on the weekends when the two full-time operators are off duty. Because the facility operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, a licensed operator must be on call for emergencies, instrument readings, and lab tests at all times, he said.
Contract employees are used on a part-time basis for coverage.
"If we didn't have these part-time people, the two full-time employees would be on call every single weekend," Mr. Alosso said.
Critics of the article say it would take away voter control over the department's spending.
"I don't understand the benefit of taking voters out of the equation. At the very least I question why we aren't holding public hearings or meetings to discuss this major change," selectman Kerry Scott said.
Ms. Scott also questioned the timing. Last month, selectmen unanimously agreed to terminate all town personal service contracts after an internal report by town counsel concluded the town did not have the authority to enter into numerous employment agreements with at least 15 employees over the past few years.
"I have to question the logic of authorizing the use of these other contracts while at the same time we're working to phase out these others," Ms. Scott said.
Mimi Davisson, chairman of the town personnel committee, agreed the town should be careful about giving the wastewater department authority to award contracts.
"I have no reason to think the wastewater commission doesn't have the best intentions, but I would urge for some type of provision requiring either the personnel committee or the selectmen to sign off an any contracts," Ms. Davisson said.
Mr. Alosso said the wastewater budget would still need to be approved by voters at town meeting if the article is approved. "This is not going to create some separate form of government. Voters still have control over the department's budget," he said.
Another wastewater article that has created a stir asks if the town should use $3.5 million it has already borrowed to install a primary clarifier at the town wastewater treatment plant, instead of the septage and dewatering component that was approved at town meeting.
Voters over the past two years have allowed the town to borrow a total of $4.125 million to build both a dewatering facility, which treats material pumped from septic tanks, and a primary clarifier, which separates oils and grease and enhances the overall performance of the treatment plant.
Mr. Alosso said, the combined cost of both projects has climbed to over $10 million, forcing the wastewater commission to focus its efforts on the primary clarifier.
"Everyone in the wastewater department wishes we could do both projects. But the global economy has changed in the past two years. There is a staggering demand by China for materials associated with wastewater projects, and in some cases the cost of certain piping has increased four of five times," Mr. Alosso said.
But some town officials oppose the article because voters approved the funding with the promise it would be used to build both a dewatering facility and a primary clarifier.
"I think people would have voted differently if they knew how the money would ultimately be spent," said Peter Palches, chairman of the town finance and advisory board.
"I'm just not crazy about the idea of saying we're going to do one thing and then doing another," he said.