Sewer work looms large in Leechburg Council race
At least one newcomer is expected on Leechburg Council as six candidates vie for four open seats with four-year terms.
The three incumbents who are trying to keep their seats — Republican James B. Spiering and Democrats Nancy J. Bono and G. Paul Simon — want to continue to deliberate on the town's tight finances and an upcoming sewer project.
Replacing the town's old combined storm and sanitary sewer lines has become an expensive proposition. Because of the old sewage system, Leechburg residents got clobbered three years ago with the highest rate increase — 56 percent — among the 13 communities served by the Kiski Valley Water Pollution Control Authority.
After enjoining and then losing a lawsuit against the authority regarding the rates, the town still has to fix and pay for the remainder of its sewer upgrades.
Next year, council will be looking for money to finance that project. Those efforts will determine what residents will have to pay.
All of the candidates agree that the sewerage project is among the most pressing issues before the town's leadership.
Bono said, “While we will be applying for grants, we have to be ready to face the fact that it is probably going to be a loan that we get from (state agency) PennVEST. I'm hoping that we don't have to raise the current sewer rate.”
Spiering won't speculate on how much households could end up paying until council has a clearer picture of what funding will be available to the borough.
“You have to have the study done to find out what you're gong to need and present it to the contractor,” he said. “Once the project is shovel ready, we get cost estimates, and then we can apply for grants.”
Spiering acknowledged that the town might be limited in how much financing it can find in grants because Leechburg is not considered as depressed as other communities.
Simon agreed with his fellow incumbents that it is too early to predict what residents will end up paying for the project.
“Until all the surveying is done, you're not going to know what you're up against and how much extra money you are going to need,” he said.
But Simon does expect that the borough will have to pay for the project through the traditional mix of state grants and loans.
The three challengers are looking outside traditional solutions for the sewerage project.
Newcomer Lorrie Bazella, one of the managers of Lingrow Farm in Gilpin, said, “We have to weigh our options and talk to some other politicians to see if we can get any help.
“We need to know if we could get grants to help subsidize the cost of this replacement project or if there is somebody more qualified or even cheaper to help us. I don't want to see our taxes go up again.”
Christian Alexander Vaccaro, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, wants to take a data-driven approach to financing the project.
“I'd like to see the available options, not just funding from taxes and fees, but also opportunities for grants through the state Department of Environmental Protection, and the block grant program that oftentimes have specific money for projects.”
Vaccaro said he needs more data for what will likely be a multi-million-dollar sewer project.
“There's some big decisions going through council now,” he said.
Sheran A. Kupas, who is in her 20th year as borough tax collector, is running for a seat on council for the first time.
Kupas is running for re-election as tax collector, as well.
“As the tax collector, I know people are hurting real bad,” she said. “We need to do everything possible out there to keep the cost to the residents down.”
Of all the issues facing Leechburg, the candidates offer different priorities.
“I think really it will be good for the town when we get this sewage project straightened out,” Bono said. “Hopefully, the sewage authority will see fit to lower the prices for the sewerage for the residents.”
Spiering said that completing the project is the most important issue because it will “have the most financial impact on businesses and residents.
“It's medicine,” Spiering said, “and there will be a lot of people who won't be happy, and I'm one of them.”
Money is the big issue for a small community such as Leechburg, Simon said.
“With the state's limited funding, it's going to be touch-and-go for the next several years,” Simon said. “Right now, our streets are getting worse like any other small community because we don't have the money to invest in repaving.”
Simon said that council should work to talk to legislators to find extra funding.
Vaccaro said that building the tax base and attracting more residents are key to the town's future.
“If you look at historical numbers, Leechburg has half the population it did 50 years ago.
“Pittsburgh underwent this great population collapse some 30 years ago and now is in recovery,” he said. “We have to attract people to these local towns and neighborhoods to live.”
Other candidates see other issues as having the greatest impact.
Bazella wants to focus on keeping young people happy and in town.
“We need to have something for our young people to help keep them here, keep them safe and out of trouble.”
She is interested in a recent proposal for a bike and walking trail.
“That trail will provide more activities for them and bring in more people from the outside to come and spend time and money.”
Kupas declined to comment on the specifics of the issues facing Leechburg because, she said, she is still the tax collector and is running for both offices.
“I would be very honored and will work my hardest to try to do what I feel is best for the town and the taxpayers,” she said.
Kupas is not saying which elected position she would prefer.
According to Wendy Buzard, director of elections in Armstrong County, Kupas can run for both offices but she can only hold one elected post.
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.