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Panel disagrees with proposed Pittsburgh City Council changes to PWSA agreement

Bob Bauder
| Monday, May 21, 2018, 4:06 p.m.
Members of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto's blue-ribbon panel meet in 2017 to discuss improvements at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.
Bob Bauder | Tribune-Review
Members of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto's blue-ribbon panel meet in 2017 to discuss improvements at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. .

A committee created to restructure the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority disagrees with City Council's efforts to maintain control of the PWSA board, two members said Monday.

Alex Thomson and Jared Cohon, two members of a Blue Ribbon panel created by Mayor Bill Peduto, said they'll reluctantly support council's amendments to an agreement between the city and PWSA. But they expect Pittsburgh officials to immediately seek changes in state law permitting PWSA to sever ties with city government.

“We view this as a positive interim step, but our expectation is that the city will go forward to amend (state law) to fully implement our recommendations,” Thomson said.

The blue ribbon panel recommended in a draft operating agreement between the city and PWSA a process for appointing a new board of directors independent of government and politics. The mayor now appoints all board members subject to city council confirmation.

Under the panel's recommendations, Peduto would appoint a new five-member body called the Board of Nominators to pick PWSA's directors.

Council plans to amend the agreement so one council member retains a seat on PWSA's board and that the board of nominators would be subject to council confirmation along with directors.

Councilman Corey O'Connor of Swisshelm Park, who is co-sponsoring the changes, said the state Municipal Authorities Act and city Home Rule Charter require council representation on the PWSA board and council confirmation of board members.

“What they're saying is they want us to pass something that's illegal and then they'll go to Harrisburg and change the law,” O'Connor said. “I just think it's good to have one elected official on that board who has to answer to their constituents at the end of the day.”

Peduto last year appointed the Blue Ribbon panel to recommend solutions to PWSA's chronic problems, including lead contamination in drinking water, water main breaks, billing errors and overwhelming debt.

Pittsburgh also hired Maryland-based Infrastructure Management Group Inc. for about $900,000 to study PWSA operations and present its findings to the panel.

Both determined that political ties to Pittsburgh among the PWSA board and staff caused many of the authority's problems.

Thomson, who previously chaired the PWSA board, said Peduto's office never pressured him on any decision, “but that's this mayor and that can change with the next election cycle.”

“If you're a member of the board of directors of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, and you're also a city employee, how can you make a decision about the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority without being conflicted,” Cohon asked.

O'Connor said one member of council would not be in a position to exert control.

The Blue Ribbon panel opposes council's proposal to terminate an option for PWSA to purchase the sewer and water system from the city for $1 in 2025. PWSA currently leases the system from the city and provides Pittsburgh with a $7.1 million annual subsidy.

“You're taking a billion dollar-plus asset and somebody gets to purchase it for $1,” O'Connor said. “All we're saying is we would like to renegotiate that.”

Thomson said Pittsburgh residents already own the system.

“Think about it from PWSA's point of view,” he said. “The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority can buy several billion dollars worth of assets that they've already paid for. Ratepayers paid hundreds of millions of dollars at the start of the lease and the ratepayers are paying hundreds of millions of dollars for improvements to these assets.”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, or on Twitter @bobbauder.

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