City leaders considered ideas to restructure the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority in a half-day discussion at the City-County Building on Friday.
Mayor Bill Peduto and his appointed Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel interviewed candidates competing to help evaluate the debt-ridden authority, which has been under more intense scrutiny lately for lead and other contaminants in some city water lines.
Peduto addressed the crowd in council chambers, promising that any future process to evaluate and restructure PWSA would be both public and transparent, and include advice from experienced engineers, lawyers and scientists.
“This is going to be the first of a lot of public hearings about this issue," Peduto said. "I know a lot of people are concerned, number one -- about lead, number two -- about privatization, and number three -- what’s the long-term status of this organization.”
Local members of the Our Water Campaign attended the meeting to see what the city had in mind, said Adam Tuznik, an organizer with national advocacy group Clean Water Action.
“We’re concerned that any level of privatization will put the interests of stakeholders of corporations before the consumers of Pittsburgh drinking water,” he said.
The authority has accrued more than $750 million in debt over the last few decades. Peduto, who has said he's not interested in privatization, estimated PWSA would need another $4 billion to fully update the system’s deteriorating infrastructure.
There is no ignoring this problem, Peduto said.
“A city can grow economically, a city can see companies move in, people move in, but if a city can’t provide safe drinking water, a city can’t survive,” he said.
Four teams of finalists presented, each imagining different routes to evaluation, stakeholder investment, debt management and future success. Peduto's Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin said a selection will be made as soon as possible, PWSA’s board and City Council will make the final decision.
The modern PWSA was born in July 1995, said Peduto, when the authority’s capital lease of the city’s infrastructure took effect. He said the authority was created to serve political needs.
“It was never created to provide water for people," he said. "It was only created to fix a hole in the budget and to be able to solve that.”
For the first three years, the authority annually paid $101 million to the city.
“We got all the money up front, and none of it went back to investing in the system,” said Peduto.
Addressing PWSA’s problems will cost money, and there are no quick fixes, said Alex Thomson, panel member and former PWSA board chair.
“We have a system that’s been neglected and ignored. We are going to have to invest in that system,” he said. “There are hard decisions that are going to have to be made by our political leaders.”
He cautioned voters to be wary of any politician who promises quick fixes.
“They’re not telling you the truth,” Thomson said.
Pittsburgh Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Darlene Harris, who's been highly critical of the authority in recent years, held a press conference just before the panel discussion. She broached questions about the resignation of three board members, the use of paid consultants, Peduto’s role in working with the agency, lead issues, line breaks and more.
“I was hoping that we could get a federal investigation on this since it’s dealing with health, safety and welfare," she said. "I don’t want to see any more politics when we’re dealing with something this serious.”
Harris said she would also support an investigation by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala. She was less interested in a probe by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, saying she believes any investigators must have no “political ties” with the city.
Harris also questioned the legitimacy of Interim Director Bernard Lindstrom's proposed contract extension through March 19, 2019.
When asked what she would do to fix the agency's problems, Harris said: "I have absolutely no idea. All I have is questions."