New Garden residents express outrage over increased sewer rates10/18/2022 07:10PM ● By Richard Gaw
Photo by Richard L. Gaw An overflow audience packed the New Garden Township building on Oct. 17 to express their frustration over their increased sewer bills, some of which have doubled over the last several months, a repercussion from the sale of the township’s wastewater system to Aqua in 2020.
By Richard L. Gaw
In the lobby of the New Garden Township Building on Oct. 17, township resident Olga Signer displayed her last two sewer bills on her phone.
The first, issued in June, charged her $173 for 9,000 gallons of usage per month. The second, issued in September for the same gallon total, was $336, an increase of 94 percent from her previous bill.
Signer had come to the township’s Board of Supervisors’ meeting to seek answers and solutions from the board, as well as express her frustration that her increased bills were the resulting fallout from the township’s sale of its wastewater system to Aqua Pennsylvania Wastewater, Inc. in December of 2020 in the amount of $29.5 million.
Signer was far from alone.
Nita Gryan just received an $851 sewer bill from Aqua.
Claire Aiello saw her sewer bill rise 62 percent -- from $112 for between 2,000- and 5,000-gallons -- to $179.
Bill Ferguson’s latest sewer bill increased $180 from his last one, despite the fact that he averaged 1,000 fewer gallons of water in his home.
For more than one hour, an overflow audience of residents whose homes are connected to the wastewater system grilled the board, saying the township did not provide them with adequate protection during negotiations that could have provided for a cap on rates. At one point in the meeting, when asked by an audience member who was at fault for the disappearance of the rate cap – which was approved by the PUC in 2017 but later disappeared -- organizer Peter Mrozinski pointed to the board.
“They took away your rate cap, and they gave you nothing back,” he said. “They got their full $29.5 million, Aqua got their money, and we got nothing.”
In 2021, Aqua received approval from the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to increase rates for its water customers by an average of 17 percent and its wastewater customers by an average of 33 percent. At the time of approval, the residential water bill for a customer using 4,000 gallons a month would increase from $69.35 to $81.32 and the average residential wastewater bill would increase from $55.51 to $73.95.
In a statement issued in 2021 that spelled out their request to the PUC, Aqua said they requested the increase in order to recoup the $1.1 billion it spent to upgrade its “distribution and wastewater systems, improving drinking water quality and service reliability throughout its water and wastewater operations.” The release also stated that a significant portion of Aqua’s capital program has been dedicated to upgrading and rehabilitating treatment plants and wells, including the installation of equipment to meet new, more stringent water quality requirements for increased sustained disinfection.
The new rates went into effect this past March, and they have been rising ever since.
‘A big candy jar’
“I had 9,000 gallons indicated on my bill, and they billed me $343,” said Geoff Mayer. “Under the old rate, the way it was calculated in the past, that bill would have been $173, so I have effectively had an increase of 98 percent. These rate increases are going to pay for Aqua’s recovery of the $29.5 million they paid to the township for the sewer system.
“It’s going to go to pay for its profits including shareholder distributions, and it’s going to pay for their executive compensation packages, which I am sure are quite good.
“The utilities come into those municipalities and offer a big candy jar, and they all sit across the negotiating table, both of them wanting to get the number to go higher. The people that pay are the people in this room, and they were not at the table.”
Mayer was joined by several other residents who urged the township to develop a plan for the use of the profits the township received from the sale to secure cap rates, reimburse customers for any excess charges over those cap rates, and establish a stabilization fund to offset future tax increases.
Mrozinski, who has addressed the board several times over the past year, again discussed a rate mitigation proposal that would create a rebate arrangement with Aqua customers in the township.
“We have been trying for a year to get an open and honest meeting,” he said. “What I have been hearing is, ‘We’ll tell you what happened.’ That’s not what we want. We want to know why it happened the way it did and who was involved in it.
“What led to the problem we are now having?”
Some in the audience directed their ire at Act 12, passed in 2016, that gave permission to the township and Aqua to set up a negotiating framework that allowed them to select an independent consultant from a group vetted by the PUC. Critics of the law contend that it privatizes the ownership of utility systems and encourages inflated rate hikes.
‘It is sold, unfortunately’
When asked if they would support the establishment of a rebate-rate mitigation system, all five board members spoke in favor of pursuing it.
“I am just as disgusted with what has happened up to this point, because I am paying the same rates that you are paying,” said Troy Wildrick, an Aqua customer. “The $29.5 million that [the township] has received? There should be something coming back to the ratepayers. I don’t know exactly what that is, but all of this needs to be talked about.”
Kristie Brodowski said she empathizes with the ratepayers.
“If there is anything we can do, we will certainly try to do so,” she said. “When we say we’re trying to get attorneys, it’s not to complicate matters. It’s to get the appropriate people looking at how we can help you.
“It is sold, unfortunately. I can’t un-sell it, and if I could, I certainly would. My goal is to look out for the township, for the residents, to see what we can and can’t do.”
Also in attendance was Rep. Christina Sappey, who acknowledged that she had met with several residents about Aqua’s rate increases. She said that there are some “serious foundational and structural issues in the state legislature” that are contributing to the rate hikes, including what she referred to as a non-transparent PUC and the stilted progress on several bills introduced in state legislature intended to curb increases.
“Many of us are involved and very aware of what’s going on at the state level with Big Water in Pennsylvania,” she said. “This is happening in many municipalities here in the southeastern part of our state, and if we’re not showing up at meetings and paying attention, this is going to happen in counties all over Pennsylvania.
“Water usage going down by 3,000 gallons and your rates going up is unconscionable.”
Some residents in the audience are galvanizing in order to protest the rising rates. Mrozinski told the board that several residents are planning to travel to Harrisburg to gain legislative support against the rate hikes. Resident Michael Picarella said that he had recently contacted the Attorney General’s office, who advised him to file a formal complaint with the PUC.
“At the time I contacted [the office], I was told that this was the third call they had received from New Garden Township,” Picarella said.
Resident Margo Woodacre called upon the current board to protect the residents who helped vote them into office.
“We are looking to you,” she told the board. “A new board is on, but the word that we have heard is that some of the new members say, ‘We were not present [at the time of the sale], so it’s not our job.’ We are here to say to you, we elected you to represent us. We are ratepayers and we are paying a lot more for flushing our toilets, brushing our teeth or watering our gardens.”
Allaband told the audience that the township is working with its attorneys and a special conflict counsel that has been created to review the terms of agreement between New Garden and Aqua. He said that a public meeting will be held at the Township Building on Nov. 21 beginning at 7 p.m., and that it will be attended by Spence Andress, who served as the director of planning and projects and managed the negotiations between Aqua and the township in the sale of the wastewater system.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].