PWSA will need billions for infrastructure needs, new water lines, mayor warns
March 31, 2017 11:51 PM
Mayor Bill Peduto speaks to a panel before they interviewed finalists for a financial and legal advisory team for the PWSA.
Councilwoman Darlene Harris held a press conference calling for an investigation of the PWSA, ahead of a meeting this morning to pick a group to shore up the embattled water agency.
Mayor Bill Peduto
By Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Start with $411 million to replace every lead service line in the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority system. Factor in $750 million to cover existing debt, then $4 billion — maybe $5 billion — in capital investments to keep the infrastructure working over the next two decades.
That’s the mathematical reality facing PWSA as the city weighs an organizational overhaul at the troubled agency, Mayor Bill Peduto said Friday. Without a creative strategy, he warned, the numbers could force an eventual doubling or tripling of service rates.
PWSA board members already approved a 13 percent rate increase for 2017, saying the increase was necessary to help strengthen failing pipes, beleaguered billing and overall financial management. The state has ordered the authority to replace at least 7 percent of its lead service lines each year, citing elevated lead levels in some homes.
“A city can grow economically. A city can see companies move in, people move in. But if a city can’t provide safe drinking water, a city can’t survive,” Mr. Peduto said before panel interviews of four finalists looking to help reform PWSA.
The nine-member panel has until Tuesday to evaluate the foursome for the mayor, who will submit a final recommendation to City Council for budgetary approval, according to the administration.
Finalists selected from 18 applicants include teams presented by Environmental Consulting and Technology Inc. of Gainesville, Fla.; Infrastructure Management Group Inc. of Washington, D.C.; HJA Strategies Inc. of West Orange, N.J.; and Philadelphia-based PFM Financial Advisors. The chosen party will sell a range of engineering, financial and related expertise to help stabilize PWSA operations and formulate a long-term, sustainable plan.
City officials hope to split that consulting expense — likely to reach several hundred thousand dollars — with PWSA, said Kevin Acklin, Mr. Peduto’s chief of staff. Finalists’ visual presentations are posted at post-gazette.com, and the panel interviews appear on the City Channel Pittsburgh (Comcast channels 13 and 14; Verizon channels 44 and 45).
“The mayor feels very strongly that every step of this process will be driven by the community and shared with the community,” Mr. Acklin said. He said the city will prioritize technical prowess, relevant experience and a commitment to an open, transparent planning process as it considers the finalists.
Mr. Acklin’s remarks capped an occasionally rancorous day at the City-County Building, where two of Mr. Peduto’s most outspoken critics again challenged his handling of PWSA.
First, City Councilwoman Darlene Harris tweaked the administration over its reliance on consultants. In a press conference, she alleged micromanagement by Mr. Peduto, pointing to his office’s involvement in contract negotiations with PWSA interim director Bernard Lindstrom.
Mrs. Harris, who is campaigning against Mr. Peduto for the Democratic nomination for mayor, aired hope for a federal investigation to focus on leadership selection, system maintenance and other PWSA issues. She said she intends to speak with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, which she would like to be involved in such a review, she said.
DA spokesman Mike Manko said he could not comment on a request that the office had not received. Mr. Acklin dismissed Mrs. Harris’ media event as “a political sideshow.”
“It’s probably one of the first times that somebody would call for a federal investigation for somebody doing their job,” Mr. Peduto said later. He said it’s up to the PWSA board, not him, to finalize a director’s contract.
The other dust-up involved Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, who estimated earlier that lead-line replacement costs could hold to around $25 million. She has said Mr. Peduto was too slow to push PWSA on lead-line removal, among other criticisms.
With Ms. Wagner watching Friday, Mr. Peduto called it “shameful” for “anyone to start to get people concerned and [create] anxiety for pure political points.” He said overall lead poisoning among local youth is waning, and that no children in the city are being poisoned by lead in tap water.
Ms. Wagner called the mayor’s latter remarks “reckless” and “terribly, terribly dangerous,” arguing that Allegheny County Health Department data could not confirm that statement. Mr. Peduto said she had misrepresented the health department.
Reached later, county health director Karen Hacker said nobody could indicate with certainty that no Pittsburgh children are being poisoned by lead in their water. That’s because not all children -— and not all spigots — are tested for lead, she said.
Still, Dr. Hacker said, health officials have not identified any Pittsburgh children for whom water has been a primary source of lead poisoning.
“It’s always been lead paint, lead dust,” she said. She said she worries that people will forget about lead-based paint amid the focus on water. The metal is linked to developmental problems and other ailments.
“We are much more concerned about the paint and about the paint dust as a primary source of lead exposure for children,” Dr. Hacker said.
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