As Pa. municipalities sell water systems to for-profit companies, consumers are left paying the price

Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer/AP
The City of York's wastewater treatment plant Wednesday, March 3, 2021. The York City Council on Tuesday approved the sale of its wastewater treatment system. Bill Kalina photo

It is irresponsible for local governments to peddle valuable public assets and leave customers at the mercy of businesses who are all but guaranteed to jack up their bills.

Years ago, former Gov. Ed Rendell floated a proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private company. It was a bad idea that fortunately did not gain traction and fizzled out.

Now, an even worse idea is taking hold in towns across the state: selling off public water and sewer systems to for-profit companies. It does not take a financial wizard to figure out that this will not end well for consumers. But that has not stopped local governments from moving forward with what can only be described as an irresponsible sale of a valuable public asset.

More:State regulator approves sale of York City's wastewater system

More:York City reaches agreement with neighbors over wastewater plant sale

In April, state regulators approved a $235 million sale of York City’s public wastewater system to Pennsylvania American Water. The deal provided the city a one-time cash infusion, but it leaves residents at the mercy of a profit-driven company that is all but guaranteed to jack up customers’ bills in the coming years.

In fact, the deal is crafted in a way to buy elected officials time before the public realizes what hit them. American Water can’t raise rates for three years. But after that, rates can go up by nearly 50%.

In return, York City gets a one-time cash windfall that it plans to use to close a budget gap, while also freeing itself from the future maintenance of its water system. But the short-term gain will result in long-term pain for customers. That has not stopped other local municipalities from turning a quick buck.

Bucks County is pushing to sell its public sewer system to Aqua Pennsylvania for $1.1 billion. If approved, residents in Bucks County will see their bills jump from an average monthly rate of $48 to $88. But unlike York City, where rates were frozen for three years, Bucks County residents can expect the price hikes to kick in after a year.

— From the Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer/AP.

— This guest editorial has been corrected to reflect that York City, not York County, recently sold its wastewater treatment plant.