PWSA should undergo restructuring, not privatization, according to panel review

PWSA should undergo restructuring, not privatization, according to panel review

Author: Alanna Koll/Tuesday, January 2, 2018/Categories: Pittsburgh

After a tough year of water flush and boil advisories and partial lead-line replacement controversies, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s Blue Ribbon Panel suggests that the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority needs to completely restructure its management system, instead of being privatized.  

According to its final report released last week, the panel says the reorganization should be completed by March 31 through a contract between the city and PWSA.  

The panel was formed by the Mayor in March to study the challenges facing the Authority and create long-term strategies to improve operations, customer service, and infrastructure.  

“While PWSA has made important progress in recent month, changes in governance, organizational competence and culture should be pursued with urgency,” read the report. 

The panel recommending changing the process of how PWSA board members are chosen, and to create another board to oversee PWSA’s existing one.  

“PWSA must be politically independent in order for the authority to properly focus on strategic and operational plans that result in delivery of clean and affordable water to the residents of the City of Pittsburgh.”  

The Mayor currently appoints the seven-member PWSA board.  

The panel suggests creating a new five-member, Board of Nominators to pick PWSA’s board members with expertise in financial, legal, engineering, public utility management and human resources to evaluate the board’s performance. The two bodies would hold a joint meeting each year.  

Other recommendations made by the panel include eliminating the subsidy to Penn American Water Company which would “result in immediate financial benefit to PWSA of several million dollars,” according to the report; cease a $7.1 million subsidy to the city; stop giving free water to places like the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium; eliminate the city residency requirement for PWSA staff; transfer the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) billing and collections to ALCOSAN; implement a storm water fee; and stop subsidies of development projects that should be paid by developers.  

Mayor Peduto said in a statement that he is thankful to the panel for their work over the past year and “nothing is more important than protecting our water and ensuring that residents are provided this precious resource safely and efficiently.”  

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, a vocal critic of the city’s handling of PWSA’s problems commended the panel’s recommendation to keep the Authority under public control.  

“The Commission’s report is right to note that PWSA has made promising strides in getting its house in order in recent months,” said Wagner. “The work that must be done, most especially putting an end to the nearly four-year lead water crisis by replacing all lead lines, will continue to require what it always has-real leadership from the Mayor and other officials. Hopefully, the strong statement from the Commission in favor of continued public control will end the efforts to pass the buck on this critical issue.”  

PWSA said in a news release that they too are thankful for the panel’s recommendations, and that they have been “undertaking an aggressive, performance metric-based improvement program.”   

“We are currently reviewing the recommendations included in their report, and look forward to working with all our stakeholders to determine the best path forward for the organization,” said PWSA Interim Executive Director Robert Weimar.  

Starting this month, the Mayor, City Council and the PWSA Board will publicly discuss and review the panel’s recommendations.  

Despite the panel’s recommendations, however, the state General Assembly passed, and Gov. Tom Wolf has signed into law, legislation that calls for the Pennsylvania Utility Commission (PUC) to take over responsibility and oversight of the PWSA.  

Since the bill’s passage late last month, PWSA now has 180 days to align its existing information technology, accounting, billing, collection and other operating systems within compliance of the PUC.  

The state oversight is expected to begin in April.