Saint John Mel Norton said he'd like to see work start on a new water treatment facility this year. (CBC)

Saint John council is holding a special public meeting to discuss how a public-private partnership could be arranged to pay for a new water treatment system.

Saint John Mayor Mel Norton said he plans to put a "full-court press" on drinking water now that the city’s pension woes are behind the council.

Norton will have many obstacles in front of him if Saint John is to have any chance of breaking ground by the end of this year on a new water treatment system.

The new rough estimate puts the cost at $220 million, which is up $55 million from estimates as recently as last fall.

The city will have to funnel any federal funding application through P3 Canada, a Crown corporation.

That process could lead to a model where a private sector group designs, builds, finances, operates and maintains the city's water treatment system. The city would however continue to own the water itself.

"The water that goes into the treatment plant's going to be our water, when it comes out it's going to be our water. The resource is ours," Norton said.

Saint John needs to assemble a complicated business case and get it approved by council in early April.

For that to happen, the city must hold a series of, at least, four special meetings.

The first meeting is Feb. 21, when experts from Pricewaterhouse Coopers Canada will review the public-private partnership process with councillors.

"The construction, the financing, the operation, those are all the kinds of considerations that are entered into when you look at a P3 option," Norton said.

The city’s existing water-treatment system meets all regulations but it is an aging system.

There has been broad political support for upgrading the system for several years and the idea of a public-private partnership has been raised consistently.