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Committee hears report on staffing for the new reverse osmosis water treatment facility

Thursday, October 5, 2023–1:36 p.m.

-David Crowder, WRGA News-

Design work is continuing on the new reverse osmosis water treatment facility, but the issue that keeps Rome Water and Sewer Division Director Mike Hackett up at night is staffing the new facility once it’s complete.

Hackett told the Rome Water and Sewer Committee on Thursday that staffing at the water treatment facility needs to increase from 14 to 21. More maintenance personnel, operators, and lab personnel are needed. In addition, a lab supervisor and a maintenance supervisor position need to be added.

“We are going to have a lot more valves, a whole lot more pipe, and more controls,” Hackett said. “It’s just going to be a whole different level, and it’s going to start matching what we have down at the wastewater treatment plant.”

Hackett told the committee that while he listed a staffing increase of seven in the report, 10 is more likely to be the right number. The budget adjustment is estimated at $400,000 to $500,000 a year.

One potentially tricky issue, according to Hackett, is the time it will take to shift operations from the old water treatment plant to the new reverse osmosis facility. He cited the West Morgan-East Lawrence facility in Alabama.

“It took them about six months to switch from the old to the new,” he said. “No matter how well it’s built and designed, there are always going to be bugs. All water, even the Oostanaula, and the Etowah have different chemistries, which means different modes of operation, and that has to be learned. You can’t research it. You have to do it and learn it.”

As a result, there will be a time when both the old and new plants will have to run simultaneously.

Hackett told the committee that it’s going to take as much time to hire and train the new employees as it will to design and build the new plant, so they need to start looking at addressing staffing issues now.

“We will need to have people who are able to be hired, trained, obtain licensure from the state, which takes time,” he said. “Then they will be able to see and be a part of the new construction so they understand the old way and they understand the new way.”

Complicating the issue is a national shortage of water and sewer operators.

Without the staff to run the new facility, Hackett said you essentially have a $150 million paperweight.

The reverse osmosis facility is still scheduled for completion in 2026. 30 percent design pricing for the facility will be presented at the water and sewer committee meeting in November with the 100 percent pricing available in the summer or fall of next year.

Funds from the water litigation settlement with carpet manufacturers, chemical companies, and others regarding PFAS in the Oostanaula River are going to pay for the facility.

As of the end of August, more than $154 million had been deposited in an account for the project, according to numbers from the Rome Finance Department. So far, just over $1.5 million has been spent on engineering and another $24,000 for legal expenses related to land and environmental issues.