Board members of a sanitation district in the South County have voted to layoff one employee and contract with an outside laboratory to handle some of its wastewater testing in an effort, they say, to cut costs.
The district’s administrator estimated that doing so would save the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District — which serves the communities of Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano — about $40,000 this fiscal year and $75,000 in future years.
However, the lab technician whose job was cut in Tuesday’s 3-0 vote maintains that she is being fired in part because she refused to throw away a sample in April 2009 that would have failed a lab test for a high level of fecal coliform bacteria.
Devina Douglas said it’s possible that some of the water — an unknown amount — was released into the ocean from the district’s outfall line, located about 4,400 feet offshore between Oceano and Pismo Beach, without first being adequately disinfected.
John Wallace, president of Wallace Group and the district’s administrator, said Wednesday that the incident was investigated and no problem was found with the effluent released into the ocean.
Wallace disputed Douglas’ claim about the sample and said the layoff was budget-related.
Douglas’ claim about the sample could not be verified, said Arroyo Grande Mayor Tony Ferrara, who sits on the district board along with representatives from Grover Beach and Oceano.
“Until it can be proven, that allegation is false.” Ferrara said. “The issue with the lab technician position is strictly dollars and cents.”
The board’s decision is in line with what other wastewater agencies have done to save money, Wallace said, noting that San Luis Obispo eliminated a lab technician position last fiscal year.
The district’s budget has taken a more than $400,000 dip in the past two years because revenue from connection fees from new development has nosedived.
Several years ago, the district received fees from more than 250 connections per year. Last year, it received fees from 17 connections throughout the service area.
The district’s other source of revenue is from monthly ratepayers, Wallace said.
Board members approved an operating budget of $3.1 million for the 2010-11 fiscal year, which started July 1. Of that, the Wallace Group is expected to receive $150,000 for administrative services and $90,000 for engineering services.
That amount has risen over previous years — a point that has drawn some criticism of the firm from the public.
In the 2004-05 fiscal year, the district budgeted $55,000 for administrative services and $50,000 for engineering services. Both came in over budget, at $83,549 and $77,702, respectively.
The budget was then raised to $80,000 each for administrative and engineering services the following year.
The budget increased because the Wallace Group is managing additional work for the district, Ferrara said, such as dealing with more complex regulations and new state standards.
Wallace Group, which has provided services to the district for 25 years, is handling numerous projects. Those include studying uses for recycled water, updating the plant’s operations and maintenance manual, finalizing a long-range plan for district improvements, reviewing the plant’s performance and analyzing district rates, Wallace said.
The sanitation district board took steps earlier this month to contract out some of the more time-consuming and sensitive tests to a certified laboratory. District officials estimate that contracting with San Luis Obispo-based Abalone Coast Bacteriology will cost about $25,000 per year.
The district would still perform some minor testing.
District staff is also reviewing other areas where costs can be cut, including reviewing its contracts for chemical supplies, and potentially reducing administrative, legal and engineering expenses.
Meanwhile, Douglas said she filed a retaliation claim this year with the state Department of Industrial Relations.
She and another plant employee also filed a complaint with the state Water Resources Control Board and the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.
It included information about the April 2009 sample, as well as other alleged incidents in which plant staff avoided collecting samples during certain events, such as when a fixed-film reactor at the plant was cleaned, Douglas said.
Harvey Packard, enforcement coordinator for the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said an investigation is being conducted, but he declined to provide further details.
In May, staff from both the regional and state water boards inspected the sanitation district’s wastewater treatment plant. In July, a notice of violation was sent to the district outlining six deficiencies and compliance issues, including improper collection of effluent samples.
Wastewater sampling needs to be done at various times to produce a representative sample, Wallace said, and the district has complied with that request.
The state water board replied that the district must by Nov. 1 provide a detailed plan on how it analyzes the treatment plant water to determine its likely pollutants, as well as any factors that could affect the effluent quality.
Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCounty Beat on Twitter.