Privatizing Pittsburgh's water system is not a good idea, officials say
February 17, 2017 12:00 AM
PWSA workers try to reach valves that control the flow of water in and out of Highland Park Reservoir #1 on Jan. 31 after the authority issued a boil-water order.
By Don Hopey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Despite his scathing draft audit of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority’s water-supply operation and management, City Controller Michael Lamb still sees much to like about the publicly owned system and said recent talk about selling it is a bad idea.
Mr. Lamb, speaking at a news conference Thursday where he released a draft audit containing 53 deficiency findings, said that despite its problems, the city’s water system remains a valuable asset. Thoughts of privatization, he said, are “wrong-headed.”
“That’s just not the right answer,” said Mr. Lamb, who noted that the structure of the authority’s almost $1 billion debt likely makes it unmarketable anyway.
“There is not a private partner who would pay the city real value for the system,” he said. “It’s got lots of problems but it’s a phenomenal system.”
The PWSA was established in 1984 to oversee $200 million in water system capital improvements. It took over operation of the city’s water system in 1995 and sewers in 1999.
Mr. Lamb said ratepayers likely would be shortchanged if a private water supplier -- he mentioned Pennsylvania American Water as a suitor -- were to buy the system. He said that not only would the nation’s largest private for-profit water supplier acquire the city system’s physical assets, it would gain territory that would allow it to be well positioned to expand into North Hills communities.
“The value they would get for what they would pay would be so significant,” Mr. Lamb said, “It’s an idea that shouldn’t be part of the mix.”
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who attended the Lamb news conference and is about to start a PWSA performance audit of his own, said he’s also wary of going the privatization route.
“It should be very clear that if you support privatization, it should be done at a minimum with tremendous caution,” Mr. DePasquale said. “Because if you do move in that direction, you don’t get it back.”
Don Hopey: email@example.com, 412-263-1983, or on Twitter @donhopey.
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