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Saint John Council voted 7-1 in favour of P3 water deal on Monday night. (CBC)

The City of Saint John is looking for a private partner to build and operate its new water treatment system, after city council voted 7-1 on Monday night to go the P3 route beginning with an application to the federal government for funding.

Mayor Mel Norton called it "an historic day" for Saint John.

He told councilors that MP Rodney Weston has been clear that the only chance for Saint John to secure federal funding would be through a public-private partnership.

"In no uncertain terms we were told two-and-a-half years ago, the only source of funding, the only opportunity to make this happen is through P3 Canada," Weston said. "That's it."

A new water treatment plant and accompanying infrastructure for Saint John has been estimated at $220 million. The possibility that as much as a quarter of the necessary financing would be lost without federal money was a big part of the decision by council.

Coun. Shirley McAlary made the motion to pursue a private partnership to design, finance, build and operate the new water treatment plant.

"We are on the right track," McAlary said. "There's no more free money, the federal government's not going to be giving out money like they did at one time, nor is the province, so I think that this is the time that we have to take advantage of what we can achieve."

Coun. David Merrithew also worried that the city would lose provincial money if it didn't vote in favour of the public-private partnership.

"On one side of the balance sheet there's a hundred million dollars. That can't be ignored as far as I'm concerned."

The state of the current water system also weighed heavily on the minds of councilors as a boil water order for part of the city had just been lifted, and councilors have been promised that a private partner would have a new treatment system up and running in half the time.

Opposition to P3 water deal

Andrew Graham, a former NDP candidate and a P3 opponent, was at the meeting to witness the discussion.

He said councilors had allowed themselves to be bullied and deceived, adding a private partnership won't turn out to be a magic bullet.

"The track record of P3's has not worked in countless communities across Canada and around the world," said Graham. 

Coun. Bill Farren, who represents Ward 1, was the only member of council to vote against the motion.

"I'm just not 100 per cent convinced that it's going to be cheaper for the residents of Saint John at the end of 30 years," he said.