FORT WORTH — After a seven-month study, the task force studying privatizing the Fort Worth water department is recommending that the city continue running the department.Privatization would likely force water rates up, increase costs for the city and the Tarrant Regional Water District and would limit Council’s flexibility in directing economic development, the nine-member task force decided on Wednesday. The task force, chaired by Bob Pence, president of Freese and Nichols, finalized recommendations for the city council at a Wednesday meeting. The findings will be presented at the coming Tuesday council meeting. “I was very impressed at how well run the water department is,” Pence said. He was especially impressed that the department has kept operations and maintenance costs flat in the last five years, despite rising demand and use of water. The City Council created the water task force in March and charged them with determining the feasibility of public/private partnerships, identifying alternatives for management and operation and assessing the legal and fiscal implications of public/private partnerships. Council authorized spending $328,622 for the process. Mayor Betsy Price said the city is scrutinizing all departments in hopes of making improvements. “Every department can improve and having outside scrutiny tends to bring new ideas to the table, fresh efficiencies,” Price said. The water task force had the first meeting in April and issued requests for information from private companies in June. They received 12 responses from various companies, seven submitting information for a lease-concession agreement, which would give a private entity the right to operate and maintain the water department for a given number of years. However, the companies were not able to compete with the city’s current water department for a number of reasons, including the department’s current efficiencies and because the debt would no longer be tax free, according to the findings.A performance assessment of the water department in 2010, performed by EMA, a strategic planning and asset management firm for utilities and municipalities, found that only 5.3 percent of the controllable operations and maintenance budget could be improved, one of the best results the company had seen. Still, the task force plans to present multiple recommendations for improvements to the water department. The suggestions include partnering the utility with other city departments to optimize business processes, continue internal departmental evaluations of strategic outsourcing opportunities and explore new revenue streams, such as highly technical, automated meter reading. Price said the water department was examined first since it has a “huge impact” on citizens. She does not know which department will be looked at next, but said the city will be looking at both large and small departments, including the city manager and mayor’s offices.
Caty Hirst, 817-380-7984 Twitter, @CatyHirst