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Consultant finds many failures, 'dysfunctional culture' at PWSA

Bob Bauder
| Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, 2:30 p.m.
IMG Chairman Steve Steckler briefs Pittsburgh officials Monday on problems at the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority.
IMG Chairman Steve Steckler briefs Pittsburgh officials Monday on problems at the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is a “failed organization atop a dangerous and crumbling structure,” according to a preliminary report issued Monday by a Maryland consulting company hired to review authority operations.

Steve Steckler, chairman of Infrastructure Management Group, cautioned that the findings aren't final during a briefing of city officials and a committee appointed by Mayor Bill Peduto to find solutions to PWSA's problems.

“Some of this is going to be startling to you,” Steckler warned before offering report details. “Some of this is going to be scary.”

The report praised PWSA leadership and the staff's “foxhole valor,” but noted “an entrenched culture of operational apathy coupled with the absence of skill sets and operating systems absolutely essential to a utility of its size.”

Consultants found no evidence of structured staff development and training, noting that “pockets of technical acumen” and skill exist throughout PWSA, but those employees are either underutilized or overwhelmed.

About 20 percent of PWSA's 250 employees are on short-term disability, further evidence of a “dysfunctional culture.” PWSA spokesman Will Pickering disagreed, saying nine employees were off on disability as of Monday and two of those were on long-term leave.

Employees were absent for significant periods from a control system used to monitor water treatment and had limited knowledge of how to manage the system.

Almost every piece of rotating equipment at the water plant exhibited evidence of significant neglect. Pump seals were leaking and could have been fixed with tightening of easily accessible bolts.

PWSA loses about 50 percent of the 25 billion gallons of water it produces through leaky pipes.

PWSA lacks a holistic strategy for correcting problems and could “waste hundreds of millions” by spending money on the greatest perceived problems rather than a comprehensive facility wide approach.

“It was hard to listen at some point because I know how hard the employees and board at PWSA are working, but its also important for us to be honest about where this authority is,” said Kevin Acklin, Peduto's chief of staff. “The goal here is to lay out a potential restructuring that will help us improve. In order to do so you have to be candid and honest about how difficult things are right now.”

Robert Weimar, PWSA's interim executive director, said the authority is “doing the best we can with what we've got.” He described IMG's findings as a “surface pulse” and said consultants would find upon a more detailed look that PWSA is aware of and attempting to address problems that were cited.

He said, for example, that consultants find “incredible improvement” at the water plant since their first inspection.

“There's no question that there are any number of elements that we'd like to improve, and there's also no reason to believe that we can't do it, but as (Steckler) said it's going to require money that we've not historically had,” Weimar said. “The staff have done an incredible job to keep systems operating, some of which are 80 years old. All of the items that were mentioned we know and we're dealing with, but we can only deal with them at a rate that our available funds allow.”

Steckler estimated it would cost billions of dollars to fix all of PWSA problems. Peduto in March estimate the number at $4 to $5 billion.

IMG listed three main ways that Pittsburgh can restructure the authority including outsourcing operations and maintenance duties to another company; selling the authority outright to a private or nonprofit company or another public agency; and improving internally through a major restructuring or regionalization. Peduto has said the city would not consider selling the authority.

The company will offer more detailed reports and recommendations during public meetings scheduled for Sept. 12 and Nov. 8.

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, bbauder@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobbauder.

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