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Westmoreland

Westmoreland authority raises water rates, says no need for auditor general oversight

Rich Cholodofsky
| Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, 5:18 p.m.

Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County water customers on average will pay $30 more this year for service as part of the last of three annual rate hikes that will be implemented in April.

Authority board members on Wednesday approved a new $100.8 million operating budget that includes an additional $3 million in revenue that will be generated by a 7 percent hike in water rates.

The board in 2016 approved a series of rate increases totalling 39 percent over three years, including a 25 percent hike in the first year and subsequent 7 percent raises in each of the next two years.

"We think this series of rate increases positions the authority well for the extended future," said authority business manager Brian Hohman.

The authority sells water to 120,000 customers in five counties and provides sewer service to about 25,000 customers. The rate increases impact only water customers.

Hohman said the rate increases were designed to help pay off more than $440 million that has been borrowed over the last 15 years to finance capital improvements to the aging water system.

Authority manager Michael Kukura said no rate increases are expected next year.

Meanwhile, officials issued a strong response to comments issued a day earlier by Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who in expressing support for proposed legislation to allow his office oversight of municipal authorities singled out MAWC as one of three agencies in the state in need of a review.

DePasquale specifically pointed to the series of rate hikes as a reason to support a state audit of its finances.

In a statement released Wednesday, the authority called DePasquale's plan an expensive redundancy.

"Mr. DePasquale's advocacy for a redundant performance audit based on rate increases strikes the wrong tone at this sensitive juncture. Senate Bill 597, which seeks to expand his powers, will have a chilling effect on infrastructure investments and could have a negative effect on the public water systems which support the daily livelihood, public health, environment and economy of the state's residents," the board said in the statement.

Officials said that annual, private audits of the authority's finances have resulted in no negative findings.

The authority budget approved Wednesday includes $30 million to pay off existing debt and another $3 million set aside for routine capital projects and repairs.

Hohman said the authority also expects to receive a $900,000 boost in the next fiscal year, which begins April 1, through the sale of additional water to the Tenaska Westmoreland natural-gas fueled power plant under construction in South Huntingdon.

Tenaska is paying the authority $22 million to upgrade water service to the new plant.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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