Pittsburgh water manager working to improve authority

Overhaul needed, but will not include layoffs, he says

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About a month into his stint as executive director of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, Jim Good is overseeing efforts to improve customer service, give employees new insight about their jobs, shore up finances and operate the agency more efficiently.

While he has orders to overhaul the agency, he said, "we're not here to lay off people. I know that fear has been expressed."

Mr. Good is an official of Veolia Water North America, a management company hired to operate the authority for a year to 18 months. He temporarily has traded his West Coast home for Downtown digs -- and accepted the task of giving a friendly face and new direction to an agency plagued in recent years by personnel and storm water-management controversies.

During an interview last week, Mr. Good said customers can expect a friendlier, more interactive authority website next year.

Even better for customers, who have had two rate hikes and a new fee enacted in the past three years, Mr. Good said he isn't planning at this point on another hike for 2013. State Rep. Dan Deasy, D-Westwood, the authority chairman, said it's also his goal to avoid a hike for next year.

The $150,000-a-month contract with Veolia has "exceeded my expectations so far," Mr. Deasy said, noting that Mr. Good has visited some of the authority's commercial and industrial customers to build rapport. In his efforts to improve the agency, Mr. Deasy said, Veolia has board members' support.

"We put all our cards on the table," Mr. Deasy said. "If there is something we need to do better, let's talk about how we can do better."

Board members said they hoped the contract with Veolia would squelch privatization rumors that swirled around the authority for about two years. Mr. Good last week stressed that Veolia's mission is to manage, not own, municipal water systems around the world.

Mr. Good said the company has deployed its Peer Performance program, a new business model that will attempt to blend Veolia's expertise with that of authority employees.

Veolia has sent employees from various locations, including Paris, to work with authority counterparts. While authority workers know the ins and outs of their system, he said, Veolia employees can show them how similar jobs are done elsewhere and help them flesh out ideas they may have for improving operations.

Mr. Good said he believes that the authority next year will be able to meet tougher federal regulations for controlling the presence of trihalomethanes, a disinfection byproduct created when chlorine and natural organic matter interact in the water-treatment process. Bromides associated with natural gas production accelerate the formation of trihalomethanes, which have been linked to cancer.

In December 2010, the authority's executive director, Michael Kenney, resigned amid questions about his ties to a vendor providing a controversial line warranty service to authority customers. A judge later ruled the program illegal because it unfairly competed with private-sector warranty programs.

After Mr. Kenney's departure, two senior managers shared responsibility for the authority's daily operations while board members debated how to replace him. Amid that debate, the authority received additional criticism after a flash flood on Washington Boulevard killed four people Aug. 19, 2011.

Mr. Good said the authority and consultants continue working on two studies--one on improvements to Washington Boulevard and other watersheds and a second on possible creation of a government entity called a storm water management district. Over the next year, he'll help fine-tune a plan for controlling sewage overflows into the region's rivers, an expensive fix also faced by other municipalities and Allegheny County Sanitary Authority.

To increase efficiency, Mr. Good has halted the practice of providing supplies to authority contractors. From now on, would-be vendors will have to build supplies into their bids. He's also looking into why relatively few companies bid on some authority contracts.

"It is a surprise here, especially in this economy," Mr. Good said.

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Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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