A PWSA lesson unlearned
There should be an object lesson in this for “progressive” Pittsburgh pols who long have zealously guarded the marionette strings still attached to the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority (PWSA).
Sadly, it will be ignored if not derided.
As various media reports have it, a Delaware County judge has affirmed the pending sale of the Delaware County Regional Water Quality Control Authority (DELCORA) to Aqua Pennsylvania, a private company, for $276.5 million.
If that latter name sounds familiar, it should. More on that later.
The sewer system serves 165,000 customers in 42 Delaware and Chester county communities. Its sale, which the state Public Utility Commission (PUC) still must approve, is considered to be the largest of such a system in the Keystone State.
The deal was made when Republicans controlled the Delaware County Council. They cited rising operational and environmental costs in making the deal, one that also included the creation of a trust to house proceeds from the sale to be used to help blunt any future rate increases.
But Democrats who assumed control of the council tried to block the sale, alleging it was a low-balled, no-bid sweetheart deal to preserve GOP jobs with a private company that had been a donor to Republican causes.
The court ruling, however, boiled down to a matter of contract law: “Contracts, binding agreements, and various legally public actions are not to be extinguished or interfered with merely because of a reorganization of county council or partisan differences.”
Nonetheless, Democrats have vowed to continue to fight the deal before the PUC. The sale of “a valuable public asset at a dramatic discount to fair-market value” should not be abided, they plan to argue.
Which brings us back to the long-troubled PWSA.
Even the hint of any whispering of privatizing the agency long has been rejected by Pittsburgh officials, who have likened it to offering pierogies with no innards.
Water and wastewater services are part of a sacred public trust that only a public authority can safely, securely and affordably deliver, the pols long have insisted.
Never mind that, for decades, the PWSA regularly served as a piggy bank for public officials who allowed the agency to fall into disrepair and imperil the public’s safety.
And never mind that, as a privatized operation, the PWSA still would fall under the auspices of the state PUC, which the pol-controlled PWSA did not until late 2017.
The bottom line here is that the Delaware County experience shows such a privatization not only can overcome the objections of those who seek to preserve their power for political gain but can pass legal muster and standards for operational efficiency, too.
Aqua was rumored to be either interested in the PWSA a few years back or interested in a proposal to compete with the moribund authority in a deal with another private party. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto classified that as a “threat.”
A threat, that is, to “progressive” controls that led to a consistently regressive PWSA.
A former city councilman even penned an incendiary commentary about “The stealthy corporate scheme to privatize Pittsburgh’s water system.”
The premise was that “when private companies take over public water systems, service often deteriorates.”
Pay no attention to the broken government Leviathan behind the curtain, right?
More remains the pity that Pittsburgh public policy makers have worked so assiduously to thwart the kind of efficiencies that privatization can bring to the conveyance of public services – through poison pills, trash talk and fantasy claims that government can do the job better.
Living in such a parallel universe is not sound public policy.
Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (firstname.lastname@example.org).