Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority can fix its delivery systems, manage its debt, and provide clean, safe drinking water while remaining under public control, according to recommendations from consultant Infrastructure Management Group, Inc.
IMG recommended the creation of a nonprofit public trust to govern the authority, which would be placed under the jurisdiction of Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission. The consultant advised that the authority then lease its infrastructure to a private entity.
After six months of evaluating PWSA, IMG made its final presentation Wednesday afternoon to a mayoral panel tasked with deciding how best to restructure the authority. The recommendation came the same day PWSA announced it would increase rates nearly 50 percent over the next three years.
IMG’s recommendation would insulate PWSA from political influence by changing how a board of directors is appointed. In his recent audit of PWSA, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale also emphasized the need for political independence.
Political pressure is one of the reasons PWSA has ended up in the state it’s in, said IMG Chairman Steve Steckler.
“We believe that something bold is needed with regard to governance,” he said, adding that the charter to create a new public trust could be written to meet the specific needs of Pittsburgh, such as a building in a mechanism for consistent public input.
Creation of the trust would dissolve PWSA’s board. A new board of trustees would appoint a new board of directors to govern the operation and maintenance of the water and sewer authority, as well as determine the terms under which it would lease its infrastructure. Such a lease would put the burden of an estimated $4 billion of capital investment on an outside entity overseen by the trust.
The mayoral panel will consider an array of possible solutions, said Kevin Acklin, the mayor’s chief of staff and the city’s chief development officer.
“Certainly, this is not a panacea to solve all the problems we’re facing,” he said. “Investigating a new corporate governance model to depoliticize this system and have it more publicly accountable is worthwhile.”
Many of the concerns and recommendations cited by Steckler in his presentation—such as the need to increase capital spending and improve data collection—were addressed at the PWSA's board meeting Wednesday morning. The authority has been conducting its own financial analysis since hiring consulting firm, Raftelis, in 2016.
Before the presentation from IMG began, more than 30 people gathered outside City Council chambers to demand that PWSA remain publicly controlled. Members of OnePA and the Our Water Campaign held signs that read “People over profits,” “Public water not profit water,” and “We all live downstream.”
Carol Hardeman of the Hill District Consensus Group thanked PWSA for being a partner and responding to residents’ concerns.
“When we said that the partial line replacements were dangerous, they halted that program, and protected a lot of people,” she said. “When we said they needed to stop shutting people’s water off and create a customer assistance program to make water more affordable for low-income people, they listened.”
Interim Executive Director Bob Weimar was invited to the podium, introduced as “a hero.”
“This is certainly a culmination of my career to have this opportunity,” he said. “I appreciate the support of the public, and you have our commitment to making the water utility what you would expect it to be. Delivering what you need.”
City officials were not immediately available to comment on the timeline of the mayoral panel’s deliberations.