OP-ED: Wastewater plant spat highlights need for regional cooperation

Ron Ruman
West Manchester Township
The City of York's wastewater treatment plant.
Tuesday, August 25, 2020
John A. Pavoncello photo

The controversy over the proposed sale of the York City Sewer System, used by not only city residents but those of us in West Manchester, Manchester, Spring Garden and York townships and North York borough, points out the peril of likely significantly higher water and sewer bills, and the need for more cooperation among municipalities in the greater York area.

The York Area Regional Sewer Authority rightly opposes the sale of the sewer system to Pennsylvania American Water. While this sale would provide York City with a $235 million windfall, and the company says it will not ask to increase our rates for three years, a story in the Feb. 1 York Dispatch shows what we face after that three-year rate hike moratorium. Pennsylvania American Water has a request before the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to raise its customers’ residential water bills by 8.6% and sewer bills by 29.8%. Together, these rate hikes would cost families an additional $275 a year.

While Pennsylvania American is by all accounts a reputable company that provides good service, the problem is the sale of the sewer system to this private company takes local elected officials out of the picture when rate increases are considered. This makes it very difficult for homeowners to have any meaningful impact on what they pay for these vital services.

We can, and should, take our concerns to the PUC when public hearings are held on this sale, which the PUC must approve. But the likelihood of succeeding is slim. The same is true when utilities ask for rate hikes. The public can raise concerns to the PUC, but that body almost always approves a rate hike for the requesting utility, often lowering the approved hike somewhat from the company’s initial request. It’s a game ratepayers almost always lose.

The media barbs between York City officials and those of the sewer authority and the suburban municipalities that use this system highlight how little ongoing cooperation and discussion of regional issues, and sharing of services, happen among these neighboring communities. If there were more regular and collegial dialogue among municipal leaders about providing services all their constituents use, perhaps this issue could have been resolved as the suburban municipalities believe it should be — with the sale of the sewer plant to the authority, providing needed money to the city, while keeping control of the service and future rate hikes with local officials.

More:York City officials say opposition to wastewater sale won't thwart budget plans

More:York City official: $235M sale of wastewater system expected to finalize in March

More:Officials: Neighboring municipalities will contest York City sewer privatization

Municipalities provide many of the same services to their residents and businesses, such as road maintenance, snow removal, recreation programs and emergency services. Often these services stop abruptly at an arbitrary municipal boundary line, only to be picked up again on the other side of that line by the next community. Regularly discussing these services and finding ways to share the provision and cost of these important quality of life issues needs to be a priority for our local leaders.

It appears there is no amicable resolution to the sewer system sale at this point. Let’s ask our local officials to avoid this zero sum game in the future by proactively meeting and discussing regional issues on a regular basis, to provide better services at lower cost to all of our residents.