The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) announced on Thursday the creation of a subcommittee tasked with developing a Customer Assistance Program, similar to those available for electricity and natural gas utilities.
This came days after activists from Action United and the Clean Rivers Campaign held a rally in Market Square where they handed out fliers warning of steady rate increases, and minutes after a petition with more than 2,000 signatures was delivered to the ALCOSAN board at their monthly meeting.
“We have been pushing for this for months and typically we have not really received a response at the board meeting after our public comments,” Jennifer Kennedy, director of the Clean Rivers Campaign, said. “And, to have it be part of the new business was really exciting.”
The CAP would help low-income residents keep up with the steadily increasing sewer rates. In 2014, the rates jumped by 17 percent, and in 2015, rose by an additional 11 percent. The rates are set to increase by another 11 percent in 2016 and 2017.
All of these hikes are the result of federally mandated sewer system updates to cut down on the amount of sewage that overflows into nearby rivers and streams by 2026. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t put a price tag on the sewer improvements, it is estimated to cost somewhere between $2 billion and $3.6 billion.
Jeanne Clark, a public information officer for ALCOSAN, said the agency was in the early stages of developing a CAP two years ago, but decided to scrap the project.
“We have been working on this for a while,” she said. “We started on it a few years ago. Then we had to put it in the background while we worked on these other negotiations with EPA because they were so crucial to making it affordable for everyone.”
But don’t expect the CAP to be available sooner rather than later. While most utilities bill consumers directly, ALCOSAN rate payers are billed by their municipality, and Clark said this could slow the program’s development.
“ALCOSAN has only 83 customers, which are the municipalities, and they send the bills to families and businesses,” she said. “So, this is a little more complicated than other utility CAPs.”
Clark couldn’t offer a timeline as to when a CAP plan would be presented, but Jennifer Kennedy said the Clean Rivers Campaign will work closely with ALCOSAN to see the program develops.
“A subcommittee is an excellent step and we look forward to working with ALCOSAN on that,” Kennedy said, “but we’ll definitely be talking with them about bringing best practices to our region and making sure that it’s not just a subcommittee, but we actually get a program in place.”
ALCOSAN board member Gregory Jones will serve as the subcommittee’s chair. Pittsburgh Public School Board and ALCOSAN Board member Sylvia Wilson, and Pittsburgh City Council member Corey O’Connor will also sit on the ALCOSAN subcommittee.