City Council Grapples With Private Companies’ Interest In Pittsburgh’s Water

Jul 10, 2018

Peoples Gas announced its intent last week to get into the water business, though exactly how it plans to partner with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is unclear. A heated discussion in Pittsburgh City Council Tuesday revealed councilors don’t really know what to make of it, either.

The future of Pittsburgh’s water came up unexpectedly. Council President Bruce Kraus suggested the body invite Peoples CEO Morgan O’Brien to make a formal presentation about his company’s proposal to become a regional water provider.

Uproar ensued.

Councilor Deb Gross asked Kraus if he was requesting proposals. Kraus said he wanted to discuss the matter in public instead of through private emails, referring to a letter he said was sent to all members. Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith suggested council seek legal advice on whether inviting O’Brien to make a presentation would be ethical. Councilor Anthony Coghill said he’d be happy to hear from any entity looking to make a proposal.

“But we don’t issue [requests for proposals],” Councilors Darlene Harris and Gross said almost simultaneously.

“If someone has a proposal, I want to hear it,” said Coghill.

During more than 30 minutes of comment, members raised concerns that ranged from the need to ensure clean, affordable water for low- and moderate-income customers to the subsidy received by Penn American Water customers who reside in the city. They grappled with what council’s role could or should be in addressing private entities’ interest in Pittsburgh’s water system.

“This is not something that’s in front of city council as far as I’m concerned,” said Gross. “It would an act of the mayor’s office to make it in front of city council.”

Councilor Ricky Burgess said before council could take up any outside proposals, it must first finalize a new cooperation agreement between the city of Pittsburgh and PWSA. Burgess said he is always open to ideas, and would welcome public conversation.

However, “I have three unchangeable pillars on which I will not compromise,” he said. “Our water system must be public, our water system must be affordable, and our water system must be pure and clean.”

Council will hold a hearing on Wednesday, July 18 at 6 p.m. to take public feedback on the proposed cooperation agreement between PWSA and the city. That document is expected to change the makeup of PWSA’s board and its governance structure. In addition, council would like to remove PWSA’s current option to purchase the water and sewer systems from the city for $1 in 2025.

That option concerns some council members and residents who wonder if PWSA would then sell or lease the system to a private company.