Bill Henry: Pittsburgh should say 'no' to water privatization
We know what happens when cities allow private corporations to take over public water utilities: Rates go up, wages and benefits for workers are cut, and cities have less power to hold decision-makers accountable.
When water industry giant Suez privatized water in Bayonne, N.J., and Middletown, Pa., rates skyrocketed. When Paris-based Veolia secured a management contract with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority in Pittsburgh, residents reported being overbilled as much as 600 percent, and key staff were laid off to save money.
The purchase or operation of public water utilities by private corporations is often suggested as a solution to budget problems, aging water systems and increasing rates. Unfortunately, privatization tends to exacerbate these problems, not fix them. Low- income communities and communities of color suffer the most at the hands of ruthless corporate decision-making. Rate increases have an outsized impact on those communities, and they’re also hit the hardest by public health crises like elevated lead levels.
For these reasons, when Suez and other companies were banging on our door attempting to privatize our drinking water, the Baltimore City Council responded by voting unanimously in August to prohibit the sale or lease of Baltimore’s water and sewer system. The proposed charter amendment will go before voters for approval in the November election. Baltimore will be the first city to ban the privatization of the public’s water. Pittsburgh should be the second.
The idea that local politicians and private companies looking to take over Pittsburgh’s water are pitching — that Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is a failed organization because it has debt repayment — is a false flag ( ”Experts tell Pittsburgh officials to be cautious about private offers for PWSA,” Sept. 27, TribLIVE). Pittsburgh is not alone in having debt and needing to invest in infrastructure.
Debt doesn’t mean you’re in a financial crisis. Plenty of water systems have debt because they are investing millions of dollars into their water systems. It is not reason to panic and hire a company to do something they can do themselves better, safer and more affordably. And, speaking of debt: When private companies borrow money, the debt is far more costly than when utilities finance infrastructure publicly, because the public is forced to cover the higher interest rates as well as investors’ profits.
Privatization — which includes the newly popular “P3s,” or “public-private partnerships” — is about asserting private interests over public goods and services. When water is controlled by private interests, they put their revenue and the interests of their shareholders first. The rest of us come second, if at all. And, communities of color and low-income communities suffer the most.
Water is a public good and human right. Investing in public water infrastructure and operation means our families and our communities will be able to thrive in the future. Community control of public assets is critical to a healthy democracy and a healthy community. The people and their elected representatives deserve to have a seat at the table and a say in what happens to their water.
Bill Henry is a member of the Baltimore (Md.) City Council.