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No jobs will be lost when water facilities are sold

Sometime this summer, ownership of virtually all water-production facilities in the Tampa Bay region will transfer from local governments to the area's new water utility. But not a single job will transfer with the property.

That fact has generated concerns among some utility employees about the future of their jobs.

They need not worry, utilities officials said Wednesday. Employees should see no changes in their ranks or job descriptions. If anything, the transfer of facilities will generate a few new jobs.

The property transfers involve Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey. The transfers are a key point in the new water agreement to cut ground water pumping, develop new water resources and end water litigation among local governments.

Most of the property set for sale to the new regional utility is fully automated, such as well fields, pumping stations, pipelines and other water-production equipment. Labor-intensive property, such as water treatment plants, will stay with the local utilities that built them in the first place.

"Sure, when we got word that the city of St. Petersburg was going to sell its well fields and pumping stations, a lot of concerns got run around the rumor mill," said David Henderson, manager of the city's Cosme Water Treatment Plant in Odessa.

"The operations and maintenance staff was quite worried about whether any jobs would be cut back."

Henderson wondered himself.

"So I did a quick calculation of how many hours we spend in the well fields on inspection and maintenance and found it was under 500 hours a year," he said. "Roughly, that is one-quarter of one person. It is frankly insignificant. We can find plenty of work to do around here to fill those hours. I understand perfectly why the utility isn't going to add a single new job, and I can tell you for sure why we aren't going to cut a single old one."

Doug Bramlett, utilities director in Pasco County, said no jobs were in jeopardy there, either. Within the county, the Starkey and North Pasco well fields already are operated by the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority. When the property transfer is made, those well fields will go to West Coast's successor, Tampa Bay Water.

"If anything, we're going to have to hire at least one operator for the treatment plants we will have to build in Odessa and Land O'Lakes," Bramlett said.

There is little work to do on site at well fields, pumping stations and pipelines because their controls are centrally located precisely so utility employees won't have to spend much time traveling to the remote locations.

"Those employees who had any duties at all on the ground out there have far more duties associated with chlorinating facilities or water treatment plants," said Mike Salmon, Tampa's representative on the West Coast board. "You don't control a well at the wellhead."

That is true throughout the West Coast system, said Michelle Klase, spokeswoman for the agency.

"Nobody is on-site at Cross Bar (Well Field)," Klase said. "Somebody goes up every once in a while to check it, but it is a small part of another job. Cypress Bridge (Well Field) is run entirely by remote control. The jobs are at the treatment plants, which require a lot of maintenance and monitoring."

The West Coast member governments were so certain they would not have to deal with firings or layoffs that it barely came up for discussion during any of the dozens of meetings held before the reorganization agreement, said Bill Johnson, St. Petersburg's utilities director.

"Bottom line: Nobody's going to lose a job, and nobody is going to get transferred," Johnson said.