Pittsburgh, There’s A New Water Oversight Sheriff In Town

Apr 2, 2018

It’s a classic image of American cinema: The outlaw saunters down a deserted main street while a sheriff holds the other end. They face off, guns drawn.

On Monday, Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission will begin oversight of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. Though it won't be quite like a scene from a Western, there are plenty of legal questions involved.

Back in November, the legislature voted to modify Pennsylvania’s public utilities statute in order to place PWSA among the flock that PUC watches. It’s a unique situation, said commission press secretary Nils Hagen-Frederiksen.

“There’s been a lot of communication back and forth, in terms of helping our consumer protection and technical staff understand the processes that PWSA has been using, and to help PWSA understand the rules of the road,” he said.

Effectively, those are the rules contained in the public utility code and Pennsylvania’s consumer protection regulations, nicely encapsulated within PUC’s regulations, said Hagen-Frederiksen.

The commission governs three main parts of any utility’s operations: consumer protection, rate-setting and more general oversight of long-range plans.

“The PUC’s mission is really to ensure safe and reliable service at fair and reasonable rates,” he said, adding that the biggest change for PWSA customers will be having an added layer of consumer protection. “[The PUC] gives an extra set of ears ... to those individuals that want to raise complaints.”

The PWSA will maintain its own robust customer service outfit, said the authority’s spokesperson, Will Pickering.

“We want to resolve issues at PWSA,” he said. “We want to make sure [people] are satisfied with [our] response. If, for whatever reason, that satisfaction wasn’t achieved, then PUC is an additional outlet.”

While oversight officially kicked in April 1, there are still important issues to be resolved. On July 2, PWSA must submit a rate case filing, a document that lays out a detailed argument for why the authority is raising rates. Last year, the PWSA’s board or directors approved a 28 percent rate increase for 2018, which took effect Jan. 1. Increases were approved for 2019 and 2020, as well.

PWSA’s interim executive director Bob Weimar said he’s hopeful the PUC will allow the 2018 and planned 2019 increase to remain in effect. Some of the revenue is being dedicated to infrastructure improvement projects.

“But all of that is subject to their review,” he said. “The goal is to try and avoid the necessity of rolling rates back, and hence the reason for trying to give them a three-year plan in September.”

That September document is a PUC-required compliance plan, which essentially covers everything the argument for a rate increase does not: things like lead line replacement or service terminations.

Both PWSA and PUC officials said the change will benefit the consumer.