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Chester County Press

Editorial: Against the current of Big Water

09/27/2022 11:59AM ● By Richard Gaw

On June 29, 2017, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) approved the application of Aqua Pennsylvania Wastewater, Inc. (Aqua) to purchase New Garden Township’s wastewater system for $29.5 million.

In Oct. 2018, the PUC’s Office of Consumer Advocate sued the PUC in Commonwealth Court, claiming that the sale of the township sewer system would lead to a severe escalation of rates among Aqua customers not only in New Garden but across Pennsylvania. In 2020, however, the deal was finalized, and the township, now flush with millions, bid its outdated system farewell, while the likely threat of jacked up rates for its customers tied to public water loomed.

New Garden Township is by no means the only municipality to be lured by Aqua in its “We’ll pay you to go away” quest to gobble up public utilities throughout southeastern Pennsylvania. The news is commonly known in this region: In its mission provide its 1.5 million customers with a modernized system of wastewater management, Aqua Pennsylvania has become a monopoly. In the last few years alone, the Bryn Mawr-based utility company has also reached purchase agreements with East Norrington Township in Montgomery County for $21 million in 2018; with Willistown Township in Chester County for $17.5 million in 2021; and this January, it received state approval to purchase the Lower Makefield Township sewer system in Bucks County for $53 million.

For certain, Aqua Pennsylvania is making good on its promise to provide massive infrastructure improvements to these systems (more than $1 billion) in an effort to support a safe environment and protect public health, and is currently investing additional millions to do so, including a $500,000 dredging project that will take place this week at the New Garden Township wastewater treatment plant.

However, what the PUC’s Office of Consumer Advocate and dozens of grassroots efforts from Bucks to Chester County have been warning about for the past several years has now become a stark, cold reality for customers tied to those public utilities.

Big Water is out to recoup its investment.

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According to documents filed with and approved by the PUC this May, the monthly bill for an Aqua residential water customer in its main rate zone has risen 12 percent from $69.35 to $77.51, an $8.16 increase. An average Aqua residential wastewater bill will go up 59 percent, from $55.51 to $88.18, a monthly increase of $32.67. When added up, these rate hikes translate to a $69.3 million increase in annual revenue for Aqua Pennsylvania.

Earlier this month, Chester Water Authority (CWA) appealed to Gov. Wolf’s newly-formed Environmental Justice Advisory Board (EJAB) to hold statewide public hearings about water affordability that would enlist the testimony of water experts and environmental groups. CWA’s eight-page letter addresses this concern over the PUC’s failure to establish a water affordability threshold as a safeguard against companies like Aqua Pennsylvania.

“Water is a right not a privilege. It is essential to survive. It is essential for life. No for-profit company should make water unattainable for ratepayers due to a lack of affordability,” said Cynthia F. Leitzell, CWA Board chairperson.

One of these residents Leitzell is referring to is Peter Mrozinski, a resident of New Garden Township, who lives in the Harrogate community in Landenberg. In his quarterly bill from Aqua for the months of March, April and May, he was charged $173.59 for the use of 9,000 gallons. For the months of June, July and August, Mrozinski was charged $297.41, even though his gallon usage dropped from 9,000 gallons to 7,000 gallons over that time. If he had maintained his household’s 9,000 gallon usage, Mrozinski’s bill would have been $343.93 – a 98 percent increase over his last bill.

For anyone living on a fixed income, these increases are unconscionable.

Over the past year, as part of a local group of Harrogate resident known under the name Keep Water Affordable, Mrozinski has taken this reality before the New Garden Township Board of Supervisors four times. At his most recent visit on Sept. 19, Mrozinski stood before the board and told them that he would not sit back down until he had a firm commitment that the supervisors would finally address water affordability for those residents who are now bound to Aqua Pennsylvania’s rate hikes.

On Mrozinski’s fourth attempt – after nearly a full year of data compilations, presentations and pleas -- the board and the township finally scheduled a public meeting in November that will bring possible solutions to the forefront, including the potential establishment of a rate stabilization fund that if enacted would reimburse existing users for future rate hikes by Aqua.

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It is a ludicrous notion for any Aqua Pennsylvania ratepayer to believe that a for-profit water utility company will suddenly bend to the concerns of its customers and magically put an end to rate increases, but township by township, municipalities all over southeastern Pennsylvania who are now cash happy from the sale of their wastewater systems should well be listening to these concerns, not kicking them further down the road. It is the responsibility of every supervisor to be willing to invest himself or herself into the muck and mire of every legal loophole and legislation to safeguard residents against severe rate hikes, no matter how challenging the endeavor. If they are to be of true service to the residents who vote them into office, they must heed Leitzell’s words:

“Local governments, who are either cash strapped or do not want to raise taxes on their residents take the ‘too good to be true’ deal,” she said. “They don’t realize the fact that they are crippling their residents with higher water and sewer bills not just now, but forever in the future. What happens as a result? These deals make their communities less desirable for people to move there, shop there, and spend their lives there. People want to save money and enjoy their lives, not spend their life savings on the water bill.”