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Alcosan scolded for lack of clarity in plan for sewage, stormwater overflow

Aaron Aupperlee
| Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

Progress on a multibillion-dollar sewer overhaul has slowed to a trickle as the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority and federal agencies negotiate changes to the region's Wet Weather Plan for sewage and stormwater overflow, authority officials said.

More than $20 million budgeted this year for capital projects related to the plan has gone unspent, including $5.8 million on environmentally friendly options such as rain barrels, green roofs, rain gardens and permeable pavement and $5.4 million for the construction of a vehicle maintenance garage, part of an effort to expand Alcosan's North Side wastewater treatment plant.

“The progress isn't what we anticipated at the beginning of the year,” David Borneman, Alcosan's director of engineering and construction, said when asked about slow capital project spending at Thursday's board meeting.

He blames uncertainty about the Wet Weather Plan: “It wouldn't be prudent to spend money if plans could change.”

Alcosan will raise rates next year — the third annual increase in a row — as it begins to pay for a $2 billion to $3 billion federally mandated project to cut the 9 billion gallons of wastewater and stormwater that overflow into area rivers each year to 4 billion to 5 billion by 2026.

Rates will increase 11 percent in January. A fourth increase, also 11 percent, is planned for 2017.

Customers can expect to pay about $37.27 more next year when average annual Alcosan charges jump from $338.86 to $376.13. In 2013, before the authority started increasing rates, average customers paid $260.92 a year.

“It is appalling to me that the public is left asking questions with no clear answers about how or why Alcosan spends its money,” Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said Friday.

“The opaque manner with which Alcosan cloaks its operations, decision-making and spending is a vestige of the smoke-filled back rooms of a bygone era,” Wagner said. “In the year 2015, the citizens who fund Alcosan deserve — and should demand — better.”

Alcosan continues to negotiate with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice on changes to the existing consent decree between the parties. The negotiations are secretive, and little is known about where they stand.

Alcosan is pushing for more green infrastructure and the ability to change the plan as wastewater technologies evolve over the decades of anticipated construction, said spokeswoman Jeanne Clark.

The authority has asked for more time to complete the project and is negotiating an interim plan that will do nearly everything the federal agencies require by 2032. A second plan then would meet all of the requirements, she said.

The goal of the negotiations is to drop the price of the Wet Weather Plan from $3.6 billion — which Alcosan and federal authorities regard as too expensive — to $2 billion, Clark said.

Ratepayers provide nearly all of Alcosan's revenue, projected at $134.6 million this year. In 2014, when rates increased 17 percent, the authority took in about $14.7 million more in revenue. This year, since rates jumped another 11 percent, Alcosan projects $8.6 million in additional revenue over last year.

Alcosan sold $266 million in bonds this year to refinance about $195 million in 10-year-old debt — saving $27 million— and to fund $75 million in capital projects.

It's unclear where the added revenue is going. Alcosan's operating budget increased $4.5 million this year to $123 million. Its capital budget increased $19.5 million this year to $53.5 million, but as of Nov. 1, only about $14.8 million of that had been spent.

Alcosan will approve its 2016 budget in December.

Alcosan blocked Controller Wagner's efforts to audit the authority's finances. She took the authority to court and lost. Wagner said that without transparency from Alcosan about how added revenue is being spent, ratepayers are left wondering if that money is properly used.

Clark has said the authority is independently audited each year and that those audits are available on its website.

The Tribune-Review reviewed 21 contracts obtained through an open records request that contained the phrase “Wet Weather Plan” awarded since October 2013, when the board voted to increase rates for the next four years. The contracts totaled at least $12.1 million.

They included $3 million to AECOM, a Downtown firm specializing in infrastructure, for analysis and implementation of a regionalization plan that would bring main sewer lines throughout Alcosan's footprint in 83 municipalities under the authority's control, and $1.3 million to Independent Enterprises for improvements to flap gates, which control overflow of sewage into the rivers.

About 75 percent of the contracts the Trib reviewed went to consultants for design, engineering, construction management, public relations and other professional services. The authority awarded about $9 million to consultants and $3.1 million for construction.

Clark said the contracts reviewed by the Trib did not include all of the work awarded for the Wet Weather Plan because some contracts did not include the phrase “Wet Weather Plan.” The contracts did not contain work related to the construction of a vehicle maintenance garage, a project Alcosan identified as part of the plan because it must demolish the existing garage to make room for the treatment plant expansion.

An earlier open records request from the Trib that sought all contracts awarded in connection with the Wet Weather Plan was denied in August by the authority for being too broad. Clark said then that everything the authority does is connected in some way to the plan.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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