The City of Winnipeg has trashed the most controversial aspect of its plan to create a new water, sewer and garbage utility - the possibility a private engineering firm could own part of a subsidiary of the new arm's-length corporation.

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This article was published 5/5/2010 (4435 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The City of Winnipeg has trashed the most controversial aspect of its plan to create a new water, sewer and garbage utility - the possibility a private engineering firm could own part of a subsidiary of the new arm's-length corporation.

The city is replacing its water and waste department with a new city-owned entity responsible for water and sewage treatment, garbage and recycling collection and generating green power.

City council approved the plan last July despite confusion about the role a private engineering firm will play in making $615 million worth of upgrades to the city's three sewage-treatment plants.

The utility's original business plan called for a "strategic partner" to own up to 49 per cent of a subsidiary of the new corporation.

Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz now says there will be no such partner and a private engineering firm will not own any aspect of the new utility.

"We're not looking at a strategic partner. We're looking for expertise," Katz said in an interview on Wednesday.

The plan will still see a private engineering group share offices with city utility staff to avoid the sort of communication problems that contributed to design errors and cost overruns at the West End Water Pollution Control Centre three years ago.

"The goal is quite simple: To obviously have fewer errors and not repeat what happened last time," said Katz, adding the partnership will ensure the private firm is held accountable for any overruns.

In 2009, the city put out a call for engineering firms interested in the job. The Canadian wings of three multinational corporations wound up on a shortlist: Veolia, Black & Veatch and CH2M Hill.

Nothing like this has ever been done before in Canada, a spokesman for CH2M Hill Canada said in an interview last fall.

"By working much more closely with the owner, you avoid changes and misunderstandings," said John Herbert, a senior program manager with the Vancouver-based firm.

This model has proven successful on large construction projects in the U.K., where the complexity of the job requires designers, builders and owners to be in the same room, he said.

Herbert said the Canadian wing of CH2M Hill was founded in Winnipeg almost a century ago and remains employee-owned. It has no interest in acquiring any aspect of Winnipeg's water-and-waste infrastructure, he said.

Having a private company design or build sewage-treatment plants is not politically controversial. But mayoral candidate Judy Wasylycia-Leis said she is concerned about private financing and private management of city facilities.

"What I've heard for the past couple of months is public control of city services is important," said Wasylycia-Leis, noting is not necessarily opposed to the creation of the new utility.

"I'm waiting with baited breath for the province's response to the proposed model," she said.

The city and province are still trying to work out the legislation required to create the utility, spokeswomen for both levels of government say. The legislation is expected soon because the city is anxious to conduct repairs before costs escalate further.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca