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Anger greets Hempfield assessments

| Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 12:54 p.m.

Hempfield residents, who claim they were blindsided by the size of their assessments for the Andrews Run sewerage project, were told they have only one option: appeal.

Members of the Hempfield Township Municipal Authority told angry customers Monday there is little they can do but appeal the amount of their assessments in hope a board of viewers will be sympathetic and reduce the amount they owe.

That didn't sit well with about 75 authority customers who packed the municipal meeting room, questioning how the assessments were determined in the rural, low-income area of the western portion of the township.

The authority installed sanitary sewer lines in the Wendel-Herminie areas under a mandate by the state Department of Environmental Protection because more than half of the on-lot sewage systems were failing, discharging raw sewage into the Andrews Run watershed.

The state agency is forcing municipalities that have failing septic systems or "wildcat" sewers to install sanitary sewer lines to prevent the discharge of raw sewage into creeks, streams and abandoned mines.

The authority was also forced to expand the Darragh treatment plant so it can handle waste from neighboring Arona. Each property owner was charged $1,800 to connect to the sewage lines plus a "benefit assessment" ranging from $2,500 to more than $14,000 to help offset construction costs.

Residents said they are upset because Arona received a $1.8 million grant to connect to Hempfield and their residents will not have to pay tap-in fees or assessments. However, their quarterly sewage bills likely will be larger than Hempfield's, said authority engineer Dan Schmidt.

Barbara Costanza, who lives in Wendel, said she was assessed $14,500 for five parcels that she owns. But it's her elderly neighbors who she is worried about.

She said some neighbors are in their 90s and can't apply for loans to pay the assessments. Others are subsisting on low incomes and don't have the money to buy heating oil for the winter let alone pay the sewage fees.

"I'm beside myself," she told the authority. "I'm in a panic. Can't sleep because I'm worried about my neighbors."

Mary Pataki lives on a farm that has well water and an on-lot disposal system. Nevertheless, she was assessed $4,500.

"We are shocked that we would be assessed for a service that we don't use," she said.

Rege Ranella, the authority's general manager, said if a sewage line is available to a property owner, regardless of use, the sewerage increases the value of the property and an assessment must be levied on the land.

"The availability of the (sewerage) has increased the value of the property," he said.

Bert Graham said ratepayers should have been presented with the assessment before the lines were installed and the second assessment after the installation to compare the values. The "benefit assessment" on a property is the difference between the two values.

"I'm worried about next year," Graham said. "I'm going to receive a $6,000 assessment, I'd like to see the assessment before and after."

A number of residents questioned how and when the assessments were done.

The appraisals were performed by John Lizza of Professional Real Estate Appraisers of Greensburg. He did 370 appraisals and was paid $29,600, according to Ranella.

Pastor Bruce Anthony of the Herminie United Methodist Church, said the church was assessed $5,800 for the church plus $1,800 for the connection fee. A parking lot was assessed separately for $2,500, but he questioned the value because the lot can't be used because it's located on a slate dump.

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