Court orders dissolution of Elizabeth Township Sanitary Authority
By Eric Slagle
Published: Friday, June 28, 2013, 4:21 a.m.
A legal standoff between Elizabeth Township Sanitary Authority and the township, which is in the process of terminating the oversight board, appears to be moving toward a conclusion because of a court ruling this week.
Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge M.A. Della Vecchia issued a consent order on Monday that was signed by representatives of both parties. It requires the authority to “take all necessary actions to dissolve and wind up its affairs.”
The agreement includes provisions that require the township to assume all of the authority's debt and responsibilities on or before Oct. 24, and prohibits the authority from taking on debt in excess of $300,000 before then without consent from the township.
The agreement comes in response to a complaint filed on June 3 calling for cooperation by the authority to comply with an ordinance township commissioners approved in April that terminates the authority.
“It's not something we want to happen,” said authority Solicitor Thomas Barry.
He said the authority has the expertise to manage the sewage system and has been doing so responsibly, but with regards to the agreement, noted, “The authority is going to do what the law requires us to do.”
Township officials met this week with the state Department of Environmental Protection to discuss future operations of the sanitary sewer system once it is no longer under the control of the authority.
No authority officials were at the meeting.
Of particular interest to the DEP is a project to connect customers now served by a treatment plant in Buena Vista to a facility owned by the Municipal Authority of the City of McKeesport.
The project, which was the object of a 2008 consent order the ETSA and township have with the DEP and Allegheny County Health Department, was designed to eliminate illegal discharges of untreated sewage into the Youghiogheny River.
There have been delays on both ends of the project that involve running a new main from the township to the McKeesport plant, which is in the process of being upgraded to handle the additional sewage.
Commissioners who voted to dissolve the authority previously discussed alternatives to sending sewage to McKeesport, including making repairs to the township's troubled Buena Vista facility. Township officials have expressed concerns that customers may incur additional costs from the McKeesport authority once that section of the system is tied in with its facility.
DEP spokesman John Poister said his agency was firm with the township this week.
“We've told them that because they are under this administrative consent order, they really don't have any options now” other than to move ahead with plans to connect to the McKeesport facility and close the Buena Vista plant. “They've run out of time and they've run out of options,” Poister said.
He said the project already was delayed on the township end because the authority had not obtained proper permitting for the work. He said that delay stemmed from changes to the project involving the location and size of a pumping station.
To avoid further delays, the DEP ordered the township to retain its authority's engineering firm, Senate Engineering, for the duration of the project, according to Poister.
Though the McKeesport facility is expected to be ready to receive township sewage by late summer or early fall, Poister said there is no way the township will be ready to connect at that time. In addition to the permitting delay, Poister said there is a seasonal prohibition for construction work along the Great Allegheny Passage, which runs parallel to the projected path of the new sewage line.
The added delay could open the township up to fines from the McKeesport authority because of lost revenue, according to Poister, who said the DEP will try to mediate relations between the MACM and the township to avoid a situation that could further delay the work. Poister said McKeesport has had delays on its end of the project as well.
Poister said the state has no plans to levy fines on the township; it just wants to see the project completed, a position echoed by the county health department.
“We're basically satisfied with the progress that is being made and the steps that are being taken,” said health department spokesman Guillermo Cole.
Still, questions remain about the township's takeover of the sewage works. As yet, it remains unclear who will oversee its day-to-day operations. For now, township solicitor Pat McGrail said the system will be administratively under the control of the board of commissioners, although a management structure is expected to be adopted later.
Questions also center on whether the township can assume the authority's debt, which is around $32 million.
Robert Similo, who chaired the authority board for years and is now a paid consultant, said taking on the debt will be a challenge for a township that has an annual budget of $4.4 million. He said the township by law will have to satisfy the existing bonds and issue new ones, resulting in added costs that will be passed on to customers.
“No one is going to get any benefit out of it,” said Similo, who noted customers currently pay $42 a month to service authority debt. Similo said that amount could go up by $15 or $20 per month after the debt is refinanced.
McGrail, who attended the DEP meeting, said the township will be able to refinance the authority's debt, noting the township has hired bond counsel and an investment banker to manage the process. She said that debt service will be paid by sewage customers and not taken from the township operating budget.
Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or email@example.com.
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