York City earmarks repair funds at wastewater plant as search for buyer continues

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

York City Council last week approved earmarking millions of dollars in bonds to make repairs to the city's wastewater treatment plant as officials mull selling the sewer system. 

In a unanimous vote on Nov. 4, council members approved an amendment to the city's $10 million sewer bond that lays out money to repair filters and replace the  outdated automated computer system that runs the plant.

"We're not certain we will sell (the sewer system)," City Council President Henry Nixon said. "But in the meantime, we can't afford to be fined if we begin to dump raw sewage into the Susquehanna."

More:As York City eyes sale of wastewater system, six municipalities ask for control

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The bond amendment states that up to $6.8 million will be used to repair or replace effluent filters. It also states that up to $700,000 will be used to upgrade the control and data acquisition computer system.

The amendment simply clarified the use of funds, said Stacey MacNeal, solicitor for the sewer authority.

The filter repairs have become necessary because the sand used in the filters is "past its usable life," MacNeal said.

"The filter repair has been needed for some time, which is why it was started at the beginning of the year," MacNeal said. "The intent was always to use this money for that project."

The project started this year after a study of the filters was conducted, the city sought bids and designs and permitting was completed.

The filter repair project is slated to be "substantially complete" by May 2021, MacNeal said. The control system upgrades could begin as early as December.

Although the amendment only solidifies how funds must be used for the projects, it is a reminder that the plant has been a "money pit," Nixon said.

York City Council President Henry Nixon speaks during a town hall meeting concerning Mayor Michael Helfrich's hiring of Blanda Nace as chief opportunity development officer, Monday, June 24, 2019. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

However, the system's financial performance isn't cut and dried, according to financial documents received through a Right-to-Know Law request.

For example, the sewer's maintenance fund, which is used to maintain the sewer system as a whole, reported a net loss of about $403,000 in 2019. But the apparent losses were due to an overestimate of the city's sewer fee collections, said Tom Ray, the city's business administrator.

On the other hand, the intermunicipal sewer fund, which covers the operating costs and maintenance costs of the wastewater treatment plant itself, showed its revenues exceeding expenditures by about $2 million.

That number is misleading, though, as the fund is essentially revenue neutral because any overpayments or underpayments are adjusted on the following year's bills for connected municipalities to zero-out the fund.

The city has yet to decide whether it wants to sell the wastewater treatment plant despite releasing a request for proposals in July. Officials have said they are waiting to see if they could make a profit off of a sale.

York City solicitor Jason Sabol said that the city cannot comment on how many bidders there have been or who they are, citing the ongoing RFP process.

But municipalities that use the wastewater system have indicated they're interested, at least in purchasing the plant alone.

In late September, five municipalities surrounding York City approved the creation of a regional sewer authority with the hope of buying the city's wastewater treatment plant and keeping sewer rates under local government control.

Boards in Manchester, West Manchester, Spring Garden and York townships and North York borough all unanimously adopted ordinances to establish and join the York Area Regional Sewer Authority.

The creation of the authority doesn’t obligate the authority or any of the municipalities to buy the wastewater treatment plant, but it is intended  to kick-start discussions among the municipalities.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.