Above water: Keep the firm that stabilized a major city agency

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The city water system is learning how to swim, but it's not ready to dive into the deep end of the pool alone.

It's been a year since the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, beset by problems, hired the Chicago-based management company Veolia North America to help stabilize the agency and prepare for when it would have the procedures and staff to go it alone.

Under the one-year contract approved last July, Veolia is paid $150,000 a month with possible bonuses and the firm gets half of the savings that result from efficiencies it institutes. By many accounts, Veolia and Jim Good, a company employee who has been the authority's executive director, have been doing an excellent job of moving the authority in the right direction.

There was a lot that needed to be changed.

An independent review found that staff turnover was too high, employee training was inadequate, operating procedures were lacking and staff spent too little time on preventive maintenance. A waterline insurance plan was ruled illegal, the former director resigned under fire and East End residents complained that repeated sewer overflows were costing them thousands of dollars in damages.

Those problems paled in contrast to a tragedy in August 2011, when a torrential downpour overwhelmed sewers on Washington Boulevard, killing four people. That highlighted problems with stormwater management, which is jointly overseen by the authority and other government entities.

Under Mr. Good's direction, the authority has been able to reduce by half the time customers spend waiting when they call for assistance. A new fee for sprinkler services, mostly applied to commercial customers, is finally being collected years after it was instituted by the PWSA board. A new process for handling water in the Highland Park Reservoir is saving $650,000 a year. And the authority was able to hold the line on rates.

The authority is not ready to reduce its reliance on Mr. Good and Veolia. The PWSA board should extend its contract, with the goal of putting the right staff in place locally so that, 12 months from now, the authority will be able to go the distance on its own.

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