Save Morro Bay is disappointed with the answers and comments made by City staff at the May 16 Q&A session for the Water Reclamation Facility, especially when they showed they were acutely aware of the project’s significant cost drivers and flaws.
Nothing significant was learned from the Q&A session, which lasted for over two hours at the Morro Bay Library. However, some of the responses they gave were more nonsensical and irrelevant to the questions asked than what we learned at the League of Women Voters’ co-sponsored April 25 Special Meeting.
We have seen before, time and time again, the City’s inability to address simple questions. But in a setting that wasn’t televised or live, their answers were less polished.
When a resident asked why the City spent five years evaluating 17 sites but not technologies, Public Works Director Rob Livick responded by stating that “every” technology (without breaking down essential project components) went through the same treatment process steps; that there was no “silver bullet.” Though it appeared Livick was regurgitating text from a Wikipedia page on sewage treatment, he couldn’t answer the question.
Despite talking about how generic the treatment process is for the WRF, Livick claimed the project was “innovative.” He added that the water reclamation component is what makes the project innovative, yet he couldn’t specify how residents would directly benefit from that reclaimed water and how it wouldn’t end up being discharged into the ocean.
None of the City staff would answer questions about our dilapidated sewer collection system, which poses significant pollution hazards that impact our water supply. The City has known of these issues since 2002. Wouldn’t it be more innovative to fix our aging infrastructure to improve our water supply than deliver reclaimed water with no discernible purpose?
When a resident asked about project sites being considered without the existence of an environmental impact report, Livick replied, “We needed to have a project first.” The answer was nonsensical. Not only did the City consider 17 project sites, they prematurely selected two sites for the project prior to a draft EIR. In 2015, residents approved water and sewer rate increases for a project location (Rancho Colina) that wasn’t secured by the City. When negotiations fell through with Rancho Colina’s property owner, the City selected a new project location that was later met with strong community opposition. Community opposition appeared partly because the project was “selected” prior to public outreach.
When a resident asked why there were only two bidders for the project’s design-build Request for Proposals — that is, two bidders with conflicts of interest — Livick explained that the City wanted “big” firms to bid on a “big” project; that only a handful of companies could design and build a project like theirs. Black & Veatch, one of the two bidders, helped define how “big” the project would be in the Facilities Master Plan they authored for the city.
Livick’s answer was slightly more verbose than the response he gave at the February 27 City Council. Then, he explained having only two bidders for the RFP was a competitive bidding process because “one of them wants to win.”
When residents asked about the bids — which the City received on May 8 after further delays — program manager and Carollo Engineers’ Associate Vice President Eric Casares stated the bids would be kept confidential from the public pending “negotiations.” Though they received the bids, the City’s employees could not unequivocally state whether or not the bids were higher or lower than engineer estimates. They said they “hoped” the bids would be lower than engineer estimates, but refused to answer the question when they were further pressed by residents.
When the question was asked, “If the bids come in high, what happens if the City Council votes them down?” Livick answered the “entire process” would start all over again, which would plunge the City into disarray and could result in enforcement fines by the Water Board. Livick’s answer comes in stark contrast to comments made by councilmembers who previously vowed to vote down the bid proposals should the costs become too cumbersome. Livick’s answer is also a stark contrast to comments councilmember John Headding made at last month’s Town Hall meeting where he stated the council could “de-scope” the project if the bids are too high for residents.
City Manager Scott Collins visibly struggled to answer the question, “What could happen if residents successfully protest the upcoming Prop. 218 vote?” He indicated the City could plunge into chaos should residents successfully oppose the rate hikes.
At the Q&A session, City staff was more insecure and fearful than confident and secure about the WRF. If the process was done right and without delays, we wouldn’t be in such a position of uncertainty. At the end of the day, I was left seriously concerned about our City leadership. Their main selling point for the project is, “Trust us, the outcome might be good, fingers crossed. If you don’t like what we’re doing, prepare for disaster.” None of us should buy that.
We do not have to accept this project as it currently stands, and we must never stop contesting these issues as long as we recognize the need to be in compliance with participating regulatory agencies. If the City doesn’t act to make meaningful changes to reduce project costs, our residents will.