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October 15, 2010

Lockport, NT mayors sign off on shared water chief

NORTH TONAWANDA — Lockport Utilities Director Paula Sattelberg on Monday will begin oversight of water and wastewater operations in her home city and those in North Tonawanda.

A ceremonial signing of the shared services pact reached earlier this month was held at North Tonawanda City Hall on Thursday morning, as Mayor Rob Ortt and Lockport Mayor Michael Tucker met with Sattelberg for a photo opportunity.

It’s all the culmination of a recently completed $400,000 study into potential sharing of water services among Lockport, North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls, begun in 2007.

“There are still challenges that need to be overcome. I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll get things where they need to be,” Ortt said of more than $1 million in work still required to make suitable a water line Lockport already uses to draw raw water from the Niagara River into a potable water line.

The plan would share Sattelberg’s authority and her pay between both municipalities. It represents a savings to Lockport, which would shutter its water treatment operation while paying a negotiated rate for potable water from North Tonawanda, which will also benefit from a roughly $70,000 savings in salary and benefits. Former Lumber City Water Superintendent Paul Drof earned as much as $120,000 per year in salary and benefits.

Sattelberg will split her time equally between the cities and be paid half her salary by each. Her negotiated salary is $90,000 and a $10,000 stipend to cover travel expenses between the cities. North Tonawanda will pay half the cost of fringe benefits over and above what she’s currently receiving. Lockport stands to save roughly $35,000 in salary expenses, in addition to curtailing their physical plant.

Sattelberg is to remain an employee of the City of Lockport for the time being.

Half her time is effectively being rented by North Tonawanda for the first 18 months. Either city can cancel the agreement with six months’ notice, and if it’s renewed, Sattelberg will become a North Tonawanda employee.

“North Tonawanda’s in the middle of a tough budget process and so are we,” Tucker said, calling the agreement a landmark and expressing hope other municipalities will offer similar cooperation. “These are the things we have to do.”

Similar plans involving Drof were rolled out by former North Tonawanda Mayor Larry Soos but did not pass the council — lacking support from a then politically divided City Hall and what some have guessed were concerns the Cataract City’s aged infrastructure would be a burden to potential municipal partners.

Also the timing of the study has worked well for North Tonawanda’s new administration, which has followed up on its relatively recent recommendation that services between Lockport and North Tonawanda could be shared through a 13-mile existing pipeline.

As well, the departure months ago by Drof to Niagara Falls has essentially opened the door for Sattelberg’s new role overseeing both departments.

Despite what some have suspected may be flaws with the arrangement — including whether Sattelberg can effectively run two departments, the quality of the infrastructure to be used to send water to Lockport and the potential for bickering by doubling the volume of government involved — officials stress they’re not worried.

“We think it’s going to work,” Tucker said. “It’s a trial basis, it’s a 10-month process. “... (Lockport and North Tonawanda) have a good relationship, and I think it all starts there. Neither of us has an ego that’s going to get in the way.”

Sattelberg — who started working in Lockport as a wastewater plant laboratory tech in 1980 and was promoted to her current position in 2008 — said some of the unique technical challenges will likely result from the distance involved.

“There’ll always be challenges. The next step is the inspection of the water lines at this point. We’re just taking it one step at a time,” she said.

Other than that, cooperation among staff is key, she said.

Of recent customer service issues set to be addressed in North Tonawanda, she said there is now an opportunity to take the best policies from both cities.

Tucker praised Sattelberg’s qualifications. She was chosen out of 10 resumes and five interviews conducted in North Tonawanda earlier this year.

Contact reporter Neale Gulley

at 693-1000, ext. 114.

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