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Proposal advances for state oversight at PWSA By Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Proposal advances for state oversight at PWSA

June 6, 2017 12:00 AM

By Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

 

Legislation to put the troubled Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority under the oversight of the state Public Utility Commission has cleared an early hurdle.

At a Capitol hearing Monday, the state House Consumer Affairs Committee agreed to advance the bill to an initial floor vote that’s slated for Wednesday. A second floor vote in the House is expected as soon as Thursday.

“This authority is a liability already and has the potential to be an even greater liability if needed supervision is not exercised,” House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, said after the hearing. He and Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, announced plans last month for the legislation, arguing the move is necessary to address long-standing problems at PWSA.

They have cited newspaper reports about the authority’s debt, which stands at roughly $760 million, along with unmetered accounts, incorrect billing, system leaks and a lack of compliance with federal water quality requirements.

“It needs to run like private-sector utilities run,” Mr. Turzai said, referring to water, natural gas and other services regulated by the PUC. “This is a crisis.”

In a statement, PWSA spokesman Will Pickering said the authority “welcomes additional resources and oversight from the PUC, but we haven’t had the opportunity to perform an in-depth analysis of the legislation.” In an interview last week, a top aide to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said his administration does not oppose the bill. Companion legislation is expected in the state Senate.

“We don’t want [PUC] oversight to be instituted as a back-door mechanism to privatize the authority and its assets, but we invite further collaboration and oversight by Harrisburg and by” the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Kevin Acklin, chief of staff to Mr. Peduto, said Friday.

Mr. Peduto, a Democrat, appoints PWSA board members. His office has urged an organizational review of PWSA, an effort that should be complete by late September.

Asked if PWSA should remain a public entity, Mr. Turzai called such questions “a non-issue.” A few years ago, he had suggested a sale of the authority among other assets. PWSA serves about 300,000 people in and near Pittsburgh, producing about 70 million gallons a day.

The PUC generally regulates “public utilities,” which typically are investor-owned systems, commission spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said. The commission acts as “the voice of the public” in monitoring those utilities, for which its functions include rate regulation and analyses of financial and technical health, he said.

Municipal authorities like PWSA, however, are run essentially by local governments. Their customers have a direct channel to the public officials responsible for those services.

Bringing a municipal authority under PUC oversight requires state legislation, Mr. Hagen-Frederiksen said. He said the last time that happened appears to have been 2000, when Philadelphia Gas Works came under the PUC.

Asked if Gov. Tom Wolf would support a similar move for PWSA, spokesman J.J. Abbott said the governor is “committed to looking at all options to help local governments solve generational problems with their water systems and aging infrastructure.”

“The administration is currently evaluating the proposal and will talk with the General Assembly and local leaders on this new legislation,” Mr. Abbott said in a statement.

Adam Smeltz: 412-263-2625, asmeltz@post-gazette.com, @asmeltz

 

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