Clairton Municipal Authority customers seek answers on fee hikes
Clairton Municipal Authority officials said sewage fees for city residential customers will double next month to help pay for bonds used to purchase sewer lines from the city, to fund repairs, and to comply with a state Department of Environmental Protection-mandated plant expansion project.
Customers packed the authority's administration building Thursday afternoon seeking answers from the authority's board concerning an increase in Clairton's monthly residential flat fee from $25 to $50, scheduled to take effect on Sept. 1.
Sewage rates will remain at $8 per 1,000 gallons.
The authority serves Clairton, Jefferson Hills, Finleyville, Union and Nottingham townships and parts of South Park and Peters townships. Only Clairton residents will be affected by the rate hike.
Solicitor Gary Matta said the authority's other residential customers pay $2 per 1,000 gallons for sewage treatment, and are charged by their municipalities for line repairs.
In Clairton, $2 goes to treatment, and $6 to sewer system repairs, Matta said.
“Clairton is approximately 38 percent of the flow that we treat in this plant,” he said. “So for the financing there, they pay 38 percent. Every one of those other municipalities pays its share.”
The others have separated sewer lines, reducing flow to the plant, several authority officials said.
Clairton resident Peggy Bayer asked if she would have to pay the flat fee if the water is turned off and no one lives at her home for an extended period of time.
“If people turn off their water, the rest of the taxpayers would have to pay for financing to make sure that there's a system when you decide you want to turn the water on,” Matta said.
“So you're obligated to pay that flat rate. You wouldn't have a usage fee. There is financing in place to pay for all the corrections to the system, and it's spread out over every user in the community. So if we start limiting users, it's going to increase the price.”
The authority purchased sewer lines from the city in February 2012 for $9.7 million, financing the deal, in part, with a $10 million bond issue.
As part of the agreement, the authority paid $2.6 million up front, with $1.2 million going toward the payoff of the city's PennVEST loan, $1.1 million to the city's capital projects fund, and $300,000 to the 2012 general fund.
The remainder will be paid in annual increments of approximately $407,000 for 25 years, starting this year.
Mayor Rich Lattanzi said the city sold the lines because it could not afford the DEP-mandated repairs, subjecting it to possible fines for non-compliance.
Over a period of several years, Lattanzi said, council used funds that had been slated for line repairs to pay employees and prevent tax increases.
Resident Daneen Thumm said the authority acted like a hero by purchasing the lines and trying to fix problems that the city should have addressed years ago.
“You're not our hero,” Thumm said. “We are our own heroes. We will be paying for this, not you. You may have saved us to get us the loan to fix this problem, but these are the heroes right here. This administration can blame the past administration, and that administration can blame (the previous) administration, and they all swept it under the rug.”
Glassport resident Daniel Costello, who owns property in Clairton, said he was astounded when he was notified of the fee hike.
“Why in the world are we having an expansion for a town that's shrinking?” Costello asked. “I don't understand that at all. We're all citizens here. We all pay our taxes. We all do what's right, and you guys (should) do what's right, too. You're shoveling something down everybody's throat that we just can't digest.”
Matta said the authority met many times with federal, state and county officials to seek grants and other ways to reduce the burden on rate payers, but no relief is available.
The authority's John Mowry of KLH Engineers said the plant expansion will cost $40 million to $50 million and is projected to be completed by the end of 2015.
The authority bought property and started demolition for the expansion. It will be the third-largest treatment plant in the county, and will increase the authority's wet-weather treatment from 18 million to 40 million gallons.
Matta said the expansion, the separation of storm and sanitary sewer lines, and pipe repairs are part of an unfunded DEP consent decree.
Board member Del Peterson said the authority will continue to do what it can to help the rate payers.
“You make decisions two ways — from the heart and from the head,” Peterson said. “The head says you have a fiscal responsibility, and if we don't live up to our fiscal responsibility, that's not feasible. We cannot have that. We are doing everything possible. We work with the city.”
Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1965, or firstname.lastname@example.org.