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Winnipeg city council is on the road to privatizing the operation and management of its drinking water and sewage treatment. 

Council has decided to explore setting up a Municipal Corporate Utility (city-owned but arms length corporation) to operate water, sewage and possibly energy services. City council also voted to use a “strategic partner” (otherwise known as privatization through a P3) to finance, design, build and operate two water and wastewater plants.

CUPE 500 and a broad coalition of community, environmental, student and church groups opposed the move and called on the city to build on existing public capacity.

CUPE 500 president Mike Davidson spoke on behalf of the city’s municipal workers at the Nov. 19 council meeting, detailing the dangers of privatization and showing why public works best for the city’s water services.

The radical shift in how water services are governed and delivered is based on a flimsy “proof of concept” report from pro-privatization consultants Deloitte & Touche that doesn’t stack public against private and objectively compare them.

Earlier this year, Deloitte also advised that the city’s Disraeli bridge should be upgraded as a P3. The consulting firm is a sponsor of the country’s main privatization lobby group.

Winnipeg city councilor Jenny Gerbasi opposed the plans, calling them a “drastic move away from public control of core city services” that “is on the fast track”. She and three other pro-public councilors raised questions of accountability and direct control.

Gerbasi moved a motion for public hearings – which have been non-existent – as well as a full and open comparison of public and private plans.

But council voted to barrel ahead instead of listening to the arguments for staying public, including University of Winnipeg professor Christopher Leo’s warnings about what happened to a similar scheme in Utica, NY.

The corporate proposal for Winnipeg includes selling water services to neighbouring communities. Leo points to the results of Detroit’s attempts to market its water regionally. Winnipeg’s water marketing plan ignores regional resource-sharing and support that could happen publicly.

The coalition opposing water privatization isn’t going away. CUPE will keep working with the broad cross-section of citizens and groups that want to keep the city’s water public, challenging the city’s blinkered plans at every step.