The reaction from the public at a Lower Bucks County hearing on a potential sale of a major regional sewer system was negative.
A group of about 70 residents filled a meeting room at Bucks County Community College’s Newtown Township campus Tuesday to give their opinion on the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority’s controversial exploration of a $1.1 billion sale of the sewer system to for-profit firm Aqua Pennsylvania.
Aqua had slides pitching the deal and experts to talk with residents. The Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority held a question-and-answer period following to get feedback from residents.
Every single person who spoke up raised concern or was against selling the public authority to a company that is for profit.
The offer from Aqua, which is owned by Essential Utilities, to sell the largest part – the sanitary sewer system – under the public authority’s purview is worth $1.1 billion. After the debt is paid off, the Bucks County government would receive about $1 billion in profit.
The deal calls for the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority to retain ownership of the water system, but sell the sewer system that serves about 75,000 retail and wholesale customers across the county to Aqua Pennsylvania.
Benjamin Jones, the CEO of the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority, has framed the deal as a good move for the authority and ratepayers, but numerous municipal and public utility advocates have called the sale a bad move for ratepayers.
The Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority provides either retail or wholesale sewer service, which means they work with another system to process the waste, to customers in all or parts of Bristol Borough, Bristol Township Falls Township, Hulmeville Borough, Langhorne Borough, Langhorne Manor Borough, Middletown Township, and Penndale Borough. Bristol Borough’s system was recently purchased by the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority for $50 million.
During Tuesday evening’s meeting, which followed a similar one in Upper Bucks County, residents questioned why the authority would be sold to a for-profit company, which will raise rates.
“Nobody wants this in our community,” said Middletown Township resident Perry Strauss.
Strauss said the authority has done a good job and shouldn’t sell their sewer system.
Jones said the debt by the authority will be paid off in coming years, but questions about new debt and rising costs make rate stability uncertain. A court decision means the authority can’t fix problems with lateral sewer lines on private property, but Aqua would be able to do that, saving residents money in plumbing fees.
Another resident asked what is stopping the authority from selling its water system to Aqua or another company in the coming years.
Jones responded by saying there is no plan to sell the water system.
A Warrington Township resident complained that the authorities did not give enough notice of the meetings, while others complained that the meeting was being held on a busy vacation week.
On Wednesday, Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority Board of Directors Chairperson John Cordisco announced more feedback will be sought and discussions on the proposal will take place after Labor Day to make sure all opinions are heard.
A Bensalem Township man said a potential rate stabilization fund, which authority officials have mentioned could be created using some of the proceeds from the sale, would subsidize Aqua following the sale.
Jones said it would help residents maintain lower rates for up to 10 years.
Ray Post, a Middletown Township resident, said he was sure Aqua was a good company, but their rates are higher than what the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority charges. He was against the sale.
Another Middletown Township resident spoke up and said the sale would only lead to price increases for customers if Aqua took over. As evidence, he showed off his sewer bill for his vacation home in the Poconos and it went from $66 per month under a local authority to $133 per month under Aqua in just two years.
Marc Lucca, president of Aqua Pennsylvania, explained that the rate was so high for that customer’s residence in the Pocconos because that system needed significant work, while the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority system is in better shape.
At the moment, Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority sewer customers pay $48.18 for 4,167 gallons on average. Aqua Pennsylvania recently pushed a plan to increase sewer rates for several towns it serves, with no rate per 4,000 gallons used being lower than the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority rate and the highest being $138.50 for 4,000 gallons used, according to Philadelphia Inquirer reporting.
Jones has said an analysis by the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority recently showed that in 10 years the Aqua Pennsylvania rate is projected to only be $20 more than the authority’s projected rate.
John McLaren, a resident of Northampton Township, said he fails to see why a well-run authority would sell to a for-profit company that will raise rates. He said he sees a potential sale of the authority as getting rid of a long-term investment and strategic asset owned by the taxpayers.
Since the proposal of a sale became public, municipal officials and ratepayers have voiced displeasure of the plan, noting the price increase and move from a public authority to a for-profit firm.
The Neighbors Opposing Privatization Efforts (NOPE) and the Food and Water Action groups talked to residents and got their contact information as they ramp up efforts to fight the sale of the sewer system.
Cordisco, the chairperson of the authority board, started the Lower Bucks County meeting but left before the question-and-answer period, which upset some who came to oppose the sale. An authority official said Cordisco, the former head of the county Democratic committee, was at the Upper Bucks County meeting in the morning.
Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority board members Dennis Cowley and Pat Poprik, who heads the county Republican party, attended the event. Board members George Hutt and Brian Allen were not at the Lower Bucks County meeting.
Report a correction via email | Editorial standards and policies