Partners have paid; Will they play?

Jeff Shields

Updated: Thursday, June 19, 2008, 8:45 AM

Mayor Nutter, the scourge of pay-to-play culture in City Hall, is poised to turn over operations of the city's sludge plant to a partnership that has lavished nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions on politicians critical in the decision-making process, particularly Nutter's predecessor, Mayor John F. Street.

Philadelphia Biosolids Services LLC won City Council's approval Thursday for a 23-year deal that will privatize the city's sludge plant. Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell and 60 union workers -- who will be shifted to other city jobs -- have raised objections, saying that the city's 2004 request for proposals was tailored to Philadelphia Biosolids, the partnership that ended up as the only suitor for the contract.

Philadelphia Biosolids is a partnership between Synagro Inc., a Houston-based company specializing in municipal waste; McKissack and McKissack, a Philadelpia-based, female-owned architectural firm; and Len Parker Associates, a Philadelphia-based, minority-owned contractor.

Synagro has trumpeted the minority ownership status of its partners (McKissack is a 20 percent partner, Parker is 10 percent), but hasn't mentioned what faithful givers they were to John Street.

The three partners gave Street $91,400 between 1997 and 2003 -- the year the city first sought information on companies that could handle the city's human waste disposal. Most of it came from McKissack principals, employees, or family members _ more than $73,000. In 2003 alone, a Street election year, they gave at least $25,000 to Street.

Other recipients include Nutter himself, who received $4,000 from Synagro and McKissack-related entities last year; Council President Anna C. Verna, whose district includes the city's sludge plant, received $2,000 from McKissack and Parker principals in 2006; and Blackwell, who despite her opposition to the plan, received $1,000 from Len Parker in 2006.

Nutter said after the Council meeting that he didn't know about the contributions to Street or himself, but had looked at the proposal closely and came to the same conclusion as the Street administration. "If something works, if something makes sense, you do it," he said. Nutter said he was confident that the process, and the resulting proposal, had integrity.

This morning Water Commissioner Bernard Brunwasser, who approved the deal in 2004, said "the process was not tailored to one partnership."

Brunwasser said the city had determined that there were only two technologies appropriate for the city's plant in Southwest Philadelphia, and the city's nationwide search for companies in 2003 turned up only two -- Synagro and U.S. Filter. it was U.S. Filter that originally pitched privatization, Brunwasser said, but decided not to bid when the city asked that the companies pay for all construction and assume liability for the "biosolids" produced from the city's solid human waste.

"That kind of eliminates the men from the boys," Brunwasser said.

Brunwasser said he was unaware of the contributions, but not shocked. He said the deal remains the best for the rate payers. "I am very confident this is the right move for Philadelphia," he said.

Jeff Shields

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