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Chester County Press

Ratepayers hold Aqua, New Garden accountable for skyrocketing wastewater bills

11/22/2022 04:28PM ● By Richard Gaw

Photo by Richard L. Gaw        An audience of more than 200 New Garden Township residents attended a Nov. 21 forum to voice their outrage at their escalating sewer bills that stem from the sale of the township’s wastewater system to Aqua Pennsylvania.

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

For more than four hours at the New Garden Elementary School auditorium on Nov. 21, three factions sorted through the smoldering mass of information that lay at the creation of an agreement of sale that has been on the front burner of controversy in the township for the past several years.

In one corner of the room, the New Garden Township Board of Supervisors sat a table facing another table occupied by three executives from Aqua Pennsylvania (Aqua), including its president Marc Lucca. The most dominant presence at the meeting, however, were the more than 200 township residents who sat and stood in protest of the reason that drew them there: the massive increase they are seeing in their wastewater bills from Aqua – as much as a 140 percent increase over the past year – that are arriving in their mailboxes as part of the residue from the township’s sale of its wastewater system to the Big Water giant for $29.5 million in 2020.

Moderated by Ryan Jennings of the West Chester firm of Unruh, Turner, Burke & Frees, the purpose of the meeting was to provide information regarding the sale of the system, a historical backdrop dating back to 2013, dispel rumors and misinformation, and field questions from the ratepayers. The forum was inspired by the Keep Water Affordable (KWA) group, made up mainly of residents from the Northgate communities in Landenberg, who have voiced their outrage over their escalating bills to township officials, ever since they first started receiving Aqua invoices earlier this year.

Nearly from the start, the patience of those in the audience to sit through the complicated alphabet soup of agencies and legal and legislative delays was paper thin, particularly during an hour-long presentation by former township official and director of planning and projects Spence Andress, who painstakingly sifted through a two-inch high stack of documents that described the minutia of what led to the eventual sale of the township’s system.

He said that a major factor leading to the decision by the Board of Supervisors and the township’s Sewer Authority to sell off the system was influenced by the cost of mitigating the infrastructure problems of the township’s vastly outdated wastewater system, which would cost the township an estimated $1.5 million a year, as well as an additional $1.5 million for debt service.

‘Allow us to speak!’

Halfway through Andress’ presentation, Peter Mrosinski and Margo Woodacre, two of the most prominent voices of opposition, shared their argument that the nature of the meeting was designed to shut down the residents. Their argument reflected the contents of a flyer that was circulated by KWA before the meeting that said that a former agreement with board chairman Steve Allaband would allow the group to lead the discussion, but that the idea was rejected earlier that afternoon by the supervisors. “Unfortunately, our supervisors once again appear to be covering their tracks and doing the bidding of Aqua to silence any meaningful discussion,” the flyer read.

“I was told by Steve Allaband that I could speak at this point,” Mrosinski told Jennings, and then turned to the audience. “Does anyone want to listen to this or listen to the ratepayers?”

“Do you all see how this is being done?” Woodacre said to applause from the audience. “You can throw me out, I don’t care. We’re here for the ratepayers. Allow us to speak!”

Soon after order resumed, former township solicitor Vince Pompo further spelled out the many layers of approval and litigation that involved the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the PUC’s Office of Consumer Advocate.

“[The sale] was done for very good reasons,” he said. “The township and the Authority were spending millions of dollars on that system without the ability to collect that money, [which if enacted by the township in the form of increased taxes] would have raised rates as high as you’re seeing them today, if not higher. We were spending one million dollars a year on the south end system alone, in addressing deficits in spray fields there.

“We sold the system. It’s gone. I know you guys are still paying the rates, but in my opinion, it was a great decision.”

Of the eight key questions posed to the township by the township’s Aqua ratepayers, the first on the list was how the township has allocated the proceeds from the sale of the wastewater system. After using $4.5 million to the cost of the Southern Chester County Regional Police Department’s new facility, the township has spent an additional $2.5 of the proceeds on the development of a township park, made contributions to the Avondale Fire Company, the Kennett Library & Resource Center and the Saint Anthony’s in the Hills Reserve Fund, and set aside funding for a stormwater program, among other projects.

The meeting also introduced Neil Morris and Max McCauley, attorneys with the firm of Offit Kurman, who told the audience that they were hired as third party counsel by the township to oversee the company’s purchase of New Garden’s wastewater system; specifically, to investigate whether Aqua had the legal authority to establish rate increases.

McCauley told the audience that the purchase agreement had certain rate protections in it, including a two-year rate freeze, and that future rate increases would not exceed four percent. However, he said that the third amendment to the purchase agreement eliminated those rate protections, thus giving Aqua the right to raise rates in its first phase of billing after its December 2020 closing. Those rate increases were reflected in the invoices Aqua customer in the township began receiving in May.

System expenditures already exceed $12 million

Using photographs of the township’s sewer treatment centers, spray fields and lagoons as context, Aqua Vice President of Production Todd Duerr said that the company has already spent more than $12 million to make repairs to the outdated system.

“When we first walked in on December 21 of 2020, the lagoons were full and when I say full, that day we called DEP and said, ‘We have an emergency on our hands and we have to act today,’” Duerr said. “If we didn’t do anything, the lagoons would have overflowed, and sewage would have filtered into the township’s streams.”

For the next eight months, Duerr said that the Aqua team began pumping and hauling thousands of gallons of solids and sewage from the South End treatment plant to other locations. Over the last two years, Aqua has stopped potential sewage run-off to township streams and restored lost treatment capacity at the East End treatment plant. It is part of a ten-year investment plan to restore lost capacity in the spray fields and provide infrastructure upgrades that will include pipe replacements.

“Our goal is to get the system up to standard and keep it there through regular investments,” Duerr said.

“The American Society of Civil Engineers said that the wastewater infrastructure in Pennsylvania is at a D-minus, so we know that the infrastructure that we’re dealing with is really poor,” Lucca said. “[Tonight’s] presentation really bore that out, because it is talking about the condition of what was happening when we first walked in.”

Prior to a brief recess, Lucca directed those ratepayers struggling to pay their Aqua bill to two websites that provide information about financial assistance. In addition, he said the company is committed to establishing a rate advisory committee that would begin early next year and consist of two-to-three representatives from Aqua and two-to-three representatives from the township.

The residents respond

When the meeting reconvened, more than three dozen residents took aim not only at Lucca but the supervisors. A few residents threatened to bring civil action lawsuits against Aqua and the township, while another said that the continued presence of Aqua will lead to increased school taxes, and eventually, a mass exodus of residents from the township who will no longer be able to afford to live in the area.

During the question-and-answer session, many speakers continued to express their frustration at the efforts of Aqua and the township to protect ratepayers against a rising tide that will continue to see wastewater rates go up and not down. When Paul Skopowski received his first Aqua bill this spring, he said it was twice as high as his last bill.

“It is on track to be more than our electric bill needed to light our house, and more than our gas bill to heat our house,” he said. “My thought was that there had to be something in these laws that is designed to help diffuse our costs, but what I am hearing here tonight is that everything seems conspired against us.

It doesn’t seem like the proper way to go, because we have nobody to defend us. It’s just us, and we have big business and laws enforced at the state level, and in the process, it is small communities like this who are just absorbing enormous rate hikes.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].