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Pittsburgh water authority set back $32M by unpaid accounts

Aaron Aupperlee
| Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, 11:15 p.m.

Broken water meters and billing disputes have ballooned into a more than $30 million problem for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

The authority had $32.3 million in unpaid water and sewer bills on its books. But it won't collect the money or shut off accounts until it figures out what the almost 45,000 delinquent residential and commercial accounts owe on water or sewer payments or both, said Kent Lindsay, the authority's finance director.

“We have been tackling these one at a time, and they are not easy to get through,” Lindsay said. “We could be very aggressive and just shut everybody off, but we don't want to do that with our current billing situation.”

Almost 23,000 residential water and sewer customers owe a combined $14.9 million, according to data PWSA provided to the Tribune-Review. Almost $13 million of that is more than six months overdue. PWSA also bills for the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority.

Brendan Schubert, a spokesman for PWSA, said the authority has collected about $2 million in delinquent payments from residential accounts in recent months.

More than 2,100 commercial accounts, including the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, Point State Park, UPMC, Allegheny County and Reserve, a township of about 3,500 just outside of the city that buys water from PWSA, are $8.3 million in arrears on water and sewer payments. Almost $3 million of that is more than six months overdue.

“It's not that we don't want to pay them, it's that we want to pay them properly,” said Jeremy Rekich, an assistant regional manager in the Office of State Parks about Point State Park's $831,463 delinquent bill with PWSA.

Rekich said the park disputes readings from PWSA meters. The park uses 800,000 gallons of PWSA water twice a summer to fill its fountain and the reservoir feeding it.

And $6.3 million is owed on 3,500 vacant lots where PWSA continued to bill because the authority wasn't informed the lots were empty. More than 16,000 sewage-only customers owe $2.9 million.

The data on delinquent accounts is as of Feb. 19. Schubert said the status of delinquent accounts changes frequently as the authority resolves issues and some customers pay. PWSA claims to have about 300,000 customers.

The authority is owed nearly 40 times more than other water authorities in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties combined. The counties are served by more than 30 water authorities. Not all responded to the Tribune-Review's request for delinquency data, but the 20 that did reported nearly $860,000 in past-due bills.

The Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County serves about 125,000 customers in five counties and reported nearly $83,000 in delinquent bills. The West View Water Authority, which serves about 200,000 people, has 60 delinquent accounts owing $28,235.

Lindsay, who was hired in August and earns $170,000 annually, said the authority addressed delinquent accounts “sporadically” in the past. He assigned a couple of employees to focus on problem accounts last month.

City Controller Michael Lamb said the number of delinquent bills represents, in part, the level of “chaos and mess in their billing department.” PWSA has been sued because faulty meters overcharged customers. Some customers didn't get a bill for six months, Lamb said. His office is auditing PWSA and looking at billing and delinquencies.

“We know that there are serious billing problems down there only because we hear about it from ratepayers and we see it in the audit,” Lamb said. “I just think it's really problematic that here they are asking ratepayers to pay more money when they can't get their own delinquencies in order.”

PWSA raised its rates 2.6 percent this year, the third straight annual increase. Total bills for PWSA customers increased more than 2.6 percent because the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority increased its sewage rates.

The authority is expected to raise rates again in 2017. Average monthly water bills increased $4.32 per month in 2014 and $1.94 in 2015. Average water bills increased $1.26 this year and will increase 77 cents next year.

Collecting even a fraction of what the authority thinks it is owed could stave off rate increases. Each 1 percent rate increase nets the authority $1 million more in revenue, Lindsay said.

“Certainly, if $30 million rolled in, it would reduce the amount of rate increases that we need,” Lindsay said. “But let's face it, that's pie in the sky. A lot of those balances are old, and a lot of that is not going to be collectible.”

PWSA billing complaints flood Pittsburgh Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith's office almost daily. She said she's tired of just talking to the authority about the problem. Smith questioned the $240,000 salary the board gave Executive Director Jim Good when it hired him in May.

“It's very disheartening,” Kail-Smith said of the repeated issues, concerns, complaints and frustrations plaguing PWSA. “At this point, I think it merits more than a discussion with PWSA. I think it merits action.”

Kail-Smith would not say what she thinks should happen.

The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh topped PWSA's delinquent list, owing nearly $1 million on 25 accounts, according to PWSA.

Lindsay and Michelle Jackson, a spokeswoman for the housing authority, said representatives meet frequently to work out disputes over water bills.

“It's imperative that we verify the bills and charges for accuracy so we can spend government dollars appropriately to resolve any outstanding issues,” Jackson wrote in an email.

UPMC's unpaid balance dropped from about $565,000 to $239.18 in a matter of months, Schubert said. Allegheny County claims it paid its balance, except charges on two accounts in Blawnox that the county disputes, said Amie Downs, a county spokeswoman. Downs said the accounts serve other businesses but the county gets bills. PWSA is investigating, Schubert said.

Reserve suspects a meter under Troy Hill Road is broken, said township Manager Tom Lavorini. The township's delinquent bill is $647,800.

“Right now, we're having a little bit of a dispute about one of the meters that PWSA reads to bill us,” Lavorini said. “We're delinquent but, I don't know how to say, but that's not the case.”

Lavorini said money has been set aside to pay the water bill once the meter is fixed and both sides determine how much is owed. Schubert said meter repair has gone out to bid and the authority hopes to have a new one installed by June.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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