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Officials won't raise sewer rates, but fund will be depleted

| Sunday, Dec. 1, 2002

Penn Hills sewer customers will not pay higher fees next year, even though officials say revenues will barely cover expenditures.

Officials estimated that revenues for the municipality's sewer fund will remain at about $9.9 million next year — just enough to cover expenses. Neither the municipality nor the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority plans to raise rates in 2003. But the municipal sewer fund will not have any surplus left over when this year ends, as has been the case over the past few years, officials warned.

That surplus has been exhausted by transfers of $1.7 million over the past two years to Alcosan to cover repairs to Penn Hills sewer lines that are part of the county system. What's more, Penn Hills, like dozens of other Allegheny County communities, might soon come under a federal consent decree to repair sewer systems that are in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

Every year, antiquated sewer systems in Allegheny County dump billions of gallons of rainwater mixed with raw sewage into local waterways when heavy rainfall overloads sewage treatment systems. Federal regulators have said 83 Allegheny County municipalities have until 2007 to clean, inspect and repair their sewer systems at an estimated cost of $2 billion.

In addition to increased water rates to support new infrastructure, homeowners face costs ranging from "a few dollars" to more than $5,000 to upgrade their water lines, according to Carnegie Mellon University President Jared L. Cohon. Cohon led a committee that helped oversee a Pennsylvania Economy League study, released in April, of the "quiet crisis" of deteriorating sewers.

Deputy Penn Hills Mayor Peggy Denham said the sewer repairs likely under the coming federal consent decree will be another unfunded mandate.

"We're going to have to come up with revenue through our own sewage usage fees," Denham said.

During the 1990s, Penn Hills entered a federal consent decree after its criminal conviction for violation of the Clean Water Act. The municipality had to spend $55 million to make improvements to its sewer system.

Those improvements are ongoing, including an upgrade of the Plum Creek sewage treatment plant. Penn Hills will spend about $3.5 million on that project next year. Other projects in the works include:

  • $561,000 for the Rosedale storm sewer project, to help correct rainwater runoff near the border with Verona.

  • $377,000 for Upper Lougeay sewers.

  • $221,000 for Springwood Drive sewers.

  • $111,000 to replace septic systems on Indiana Road.

    Penn Hills proposed general fund budget is set at $20.2 million for 2003, about a $2 million increase over last year. The spending plan holds the line on the municipality's tax rate, now at 2.6 mills. For the owner of a $100,000 house, that means an annual muncipal tax bill of $260.

    The next public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Dec. 11.

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