Officials: Neighboring municipalities will contest York City sewer privatization

Harper Ho
York Dispatch
The City of York's wastewater treatment plant.
Tuesday, August 25, 2020
John A. Pavoncello photo

A coalition of local municipalities will attempt to block the sale of York City's wastewater treatment system to a private firm by filing a formal complaint with a state regulatory agency, officials said.

York City is negotiating the sale of its sewer system with Pennsylvania American Water, which bid $235 million. The city's 2021 budget relies on the revenue from the privatization, and the city council has already declared its intention to move forward.

More:York City Council moves closer to wastewater sale

But the York Area Regional Sewer Authority will contest the sale by filing a complaint to the state Public Utility Commission, which could ultimately scuttle the deal between York City and Pennsylvania American.

More:OP-ED: Regional group to protest York City wastewater plant sale

"We're not trying to threaten the city. We've gone through every possible means that we can see to just have a meeting with them and nothing has worked at this point," said Kelly Kelch, West Manchester township manager and a spokesperson for the coalition. 

York Area Regional Sewer Authority, consisting of Manchester, West Manchester, Spring Garden and York townships and North York borough, have for months lobbied York City to sell its treatment plant  — but not the entire system —to the authority.

York City officials — aiming instead to sell the entire system — have repeatedly rebuffed the authority's calls for meetings to negotiate.

"This whole thing in my mind is an exercise in regional cooperation. I mean you have five municipalities that are banded together," Kelch said. "We'd like it to be fixed. We'd like York City to join us. Sell us the wastewater treatment plant, keep their collection system and be part of this."

York City instead sought bids for the entire sewer system late last year. Pennsylvania American's offer was the highest of four bidders.

York City Council is expected to vote in February on the terms of the deal with Pennsylvania American. 

More:Potential buyer makes pitch to York City sewer users

Earlier this month, York City Council President Henry Nixon said he was a "little disappointed" the authority opted not to bid on the entire system because of the groups' "interest."

The five municipalities banded together last year and created the coalition in an effort to take ownership of city's wastewater treatment plant, which they all use. Members have said that privatization will ultimately result in significantly higher user fees. 

More:Five municipalities say 'yes' to regional sewer authority, want deal with York City

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said the coalition "never produced any real proposal" and accused the coalition of attempting to bully the cash-strapped city.

"The regional authority wants to gain control of the city’s largest asset at a bargain-basement price, but the city will not surrender to the financial interests of our wealthier neighbors," Helfrich said in an email. "We would hope that our suburban neighbors will end their opposition, as it does not serve the interests of the city or the region. They should be cheering the influx of hundreds of millions of dollars into our economy, rather than actively working to sabotage it. For the sake of our regional economy, we hope they’ll reconsider their stance." 

More:OP-ED: Mayor sees clear choice in York City: financial freedom or financial catastrophe

Helfrich is responsible for the plan to sell the sewer system, which he said late last year was the only way to plug a $14 million hole in the city budget and avoid a significant tax hike.

PUC spokesperson Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said any complaint filed is a legal process.  

"(There's) a period of time to respond to the issues that are raised in the complaint and then really what happens next is going to be based on the issues that are raised,"  Hagen-Frederiksen said.

The authority has consulted with a PUC attorney but nothing has been formally filed yet, Kelch said.

"Our public officials are definitely committed. We're doing this to protect our rate payers. And I think that's why all of the municipalities involved in the regional authority have gotten together. Our number one priority is to protect our rate payers. And we're committed to moving forward with this."