ITHACA, N.Y.—Uncompetitive wages have driven staffing levels at the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility (IAWWTF) into decline. The facility provides a critical service,  eliminating contaminants from wastewater, preventing the spread of diseases like cholera, and treating water to the point that it can be returned to Cayuga Lake and the larger water cycle. 

To cope with the staffing shortage at the wastewater treatment facility, and the departure of the plant’s Chief Operating Officer in 2022, the City of Ithaca has been contracting a private company, the Camden Group, since early 2022 to fill in the gaps. But the Camden Group’s assistance, while officials acknowledge it is needed at the facility, also comes at a premium.

These issues moved the Special Joint Commission (SJC), the seven-member public body that has oversight over the wastewater facility, to form a working group in February to start exploring options to ensure the longevity of the IAWWTF. On March 8, four of those options were briefly discussed by the SJC.

Depending on the exact position, plant operators at the IAWWTF are making anywhere between $25,000 and $40,000 below a competitive salary according to labor market assessments shared by facility officials and the Camden Group.

“There’s nobody in the world that will come here for the city wage. Just don’t even think about it,” Ken Scherrieble, the Camden Group’s president, who has been assisting the city with seeking out plant operators and trainee recruits. 

Based on discussion at SJC meetings, it seems that the city has contracted the Camden Group to fill the IAWWTF’s Chief Operating Officer position, as well as two other administrative and plant operator roles. Wastewater treatment facilities are legally required to have a licensed chief operator officer in order to operate. It’s a position that comes with a high degree of responsibility. A major neglect of their duties can result in the chief operator being sentenced to jail time

To account for the cost of the services the Camden Group will be rendering at the plant in 2023, the City of Ithaca almost doubled the IAWWTF’S budget for contractual services from $356,000 in 2022 to $720,049 in 2023

The IAWWTF’s contractual services budget is used to pay for a variety of work at the plant, not just the Camden Group;s services. While The Ithaca Voice awaits a FOIL request for the contract between the city and the Camden Group, the difference in the contractual budgets between 2022 and 2023, which is $364,049 can serve as an extrapolation of how much it is costing the city to pay the Camden Group its these services.

The IAWWTF’s contractual services budget has remained in the ballpark of $360,000 for several years. In the case of 2022 the IAWWTF paid for the Camden Group’s services through a mix of funding from the contractual services budget, and leftover funds from the staffing budget for positions that were approved, but never filled that year. 

The approved staffing budget, which is separate from the contractual services budget, for the IAWWTF in 2023 is $806,101. Those funds could be used to fund 14 positions, including a Chief Operating Officer if the city can net a candidate, however city officials believe that the salary being offered for the position may be up to $50,000 below market. 

Inside the Ithaca wastewater treatment facility. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Camden’s work at the IAWWTF has been thoroughly acknowledged as necessary by city officials, but the way the IAWWTF is being run is not a “sustainable situation,” said Alderperson Cynthia Brock, who chairs the SJC. 

Now, after two meetings, the four member working group, which Brock also chairs, has talked through four ideas to try and solve the staffing issues. The discussion did not clearly identify one idea that takes precedence over the others.

One option would be to create a new bargaining unit for the treatment facility’s employees. Plant operators are represented by the city’s Administrative Unit, and their pay grade is the same as other city employees, like foresters or administrative assistants. Currently, to give a pay raise to plant operators through the labor contract also means giving that equivalent raise to other positions in the same pay grade, which creates a major hurdle for simply giving plant operators a raise in the next labor contract negotiation. 

Brock expressed that breaking plant operators into their own bargaining unit doesn’t seem realistic. “I just don’t see it fitting with the way that the dynamics within the labor structure of the city right now,” said Brock. The Administrative Unit’s labor contract with the city expires at the end of 2024.

Another option that is being considered is to fully contract out the operation of the IAWWTF, however this idea generated little to no discussion. 

The working group also considered the idea of transferring the status of employee of record to the Town of Ithaca from the City of Ithaca. The IAWWTF is owned by the Town and City of Ithaca, as well as the Town of Dryden, but the city employs all of the plant’s workers. 

The argument for the transition rests on the plant’s workers being able to form their own bargaining unit with the town, and also that the Town of Ithaca has been quicker to respond to increased costs of labor in the market than the city has. Under this approach, the municipal partnership would shift into a municipal corporation, said Brock. She added that this would mean that the IAWWTF would no longer be under the purview of the city or the town of Ithaca’s highest elected official, but it would still have an oversight board.

The final idea discussed by the SJC was to create a sewer district, which would turn the area that the IAWWTF serves into a taxing jurisdiction. The shift would give the plant the most autonomy, but would require approval from the New York State Legislature. 

Brock acknowledged that none of the ideas that the working group came up with are “quick fixes, in any way” and may be years away from implementation. 

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn