The Wausau Water Works Commission on Tuesday extended a controversial PFAS treatment pilot study for a month, after utility staff asked for more time to look for alternative sources of funding .
The extension will cost the city more than $30,000.
The Commission also approved a 3% staff pay raise as a cost-of-living adjustment during Tuesday’s meeting. The COLA, if approved by Wausau’s Human Resources Committee and the City Council, would take effect in January next year.
In his memo to the commission, Director of the Public Works Eric Lindman wrote that “discontinuing the pilot study to save a few thousand dollars is NOT a sound engineering decision.” On Tuesday, Lindman asked the group to allow time to secure an alternate source of funding if the commission did not approve the continuation.
The motion to approve the one-month extension was made by Commissioner Joe Gehin, who is employed by Becher Hoppe, one of two consulting firms working on the project. Donohue & Associates is the other firm chosen by the city. Lindman, who has strongly pushed for continuing the pilot study, did not respond to questions about whether Becher Hoppe is still involved in the study.
In his memo to the commission, the DPW director said that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources supports the continuation.
“Staff, engineers and WDNR recommend continuing the pilot study for as long as possible and continue to gather data,” his memo said. Unclear is when the DNR made such a recommendation. Lindman did not respond to Wausau Pilot & Review’s questions for clarification.
Drinking Water Division Superintendent Scott Boers also supported continuing the study, saying if the program helped reduce taking samples, it would ultimately pay for itself. In July, the commission asked staff to seek out the DNR’s position on the matter when it put the pilot study on hold.
Commissioner John Robinson again questioned the value of the continuation since the city already opted to implement GAC technology in the upcoming $120 million treatment facilities to remove PFAS from the city’s drinking water. The decision to implement GAC was based on the pilot study.
“I don’t know what tree we are shaking here,” Robinson said, after Lindman asked for the study’s continuation. Robinson questioned the value of doing so, especially in light of the utility’s critical staffing shortage.
Gehin’s suggestion to approve the pilot study was amended when Robinson suggested a one-month deadline for the extension. Jim Force, a commissioner who has also questioned continuing the study, was not present on Tuesday. The amended measure passed unanimously.
Staff woes continue amid pay discussion
Lindman said the department is struggling to hire and retain staff due to the existing pay. He said waiting for a marketing study on the city’s pay would be too late, resulting in a tighter staffing crunch.
Boers called the raise a “slap in the face,” and warned that if adjustments on pay are not approved the staffing situation will only worsen, because pay is far behind industry standards.
“We need to move faster than this,” he said, cautioning that further staffing shortages could lead to significant impacts including DNR compliance issues, water outages and boil orders.
Mayor Katie Rosenberg acknowledged that the city needs an analysis of the financial impact of the raise, with a more robust solution.
“This was what we can do right now,” she said.