New Garden board says ‘No’ to sewer rate mitigation12/20/2022 03:50PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
By a 3-2 vote at their Dec. 19 meeting, the New Garden Township Board of Supervisors rejected a motion that would investigate ways to create a rate mitigation payment scenario for those township customers who are tied into the wastewater system now owned by Aqua Pennsylvania – and seeing their sewer bills skyrocket under the new ownership.
Those supervisors voting in favor of the idea of a motion to explore a rate mitigation package for ratepayers were Troy Wildrick and Ted Gallivan, while board member David Unger, vice-chairwoman Kristie Brodowski and board chairman Steve Allaband voted against the motion.
“While I don’t think the ratepayers have a right to the money – the money belongs to the township – I vote ‘Yes’ because I think the township should help out the ratepayers, because bills have gone up,” Gallivan said. “I have spent hours and hours thinking about how we could try to [create a mitigation system for Aqua customers in the township], but there is no easy solution. I am not happy I lost the vote stating my case, but I’m pleased that we have had a good dialogue.”
“For me, the best way forward is to secure the financial security of the entire township,” Unger said. “Everyone here was elected by the entirety of the township. We didn’t have a race just in Somerset Lake. We didn’t have a race just in Harrogate. We were elected by everyone, so we have to take care of everyone.”
For the last several months, the idea of the township creating a rate mitigation package has been generated from those Aqua ratepayers who have shared the alarming increases reflected in the sewer bills they have been receiving from Aqua. Over that time, both in person and through an email campaign to ratepayers, a grass roots organization called Keep Water Affordable (KWA) has magnified its appeal to the township to consider such a proposal.
The most prominent talking point of the ratepayers’ arguments has focused on the $29.5 million the township received for the sale of its wastewater system to Aqua, some of which they argue should be used to create a mitigation package for them. While some board members have expressed empathy for a current rate structure that has left Aqua ratepayers in the township “footing the bill” for a wastewater system that has already undergone more than $12 million in repairs by Aqua, their refrain has been the same: how would the township create a rate mitigation package that is equitable for everyone?
“I have seen this argument from both sides, and that’s why I see that there is no clear way to solve this without litigation,” Allaband said. “The budgetary constraints that the township has are not sustainable [to create a mitigation rate system.] We need to spend money in Toughkenamon. We need to fix the roads. There are investments that we need to make in our infrastructure that will help the township.”
‘The township’s ratepayers were kept informed’
KWA and other ratepayers have also consistently lobbed another criticism at the board – that the township completed its transaction with Aqua behind closed doors, with virtually no signs of transparency with township residents.
“The entire decision-making process from start to finish took place from the latter part of 2013 and concluded in the beginning of 2020 when the asset purchase agreement was completed and the sale was completed,” Allaband said, reading from an opening statement. “During this entire six-year period, the township’s ratepayers were kept informed through public meetings, postings and the township website, as well as inserts in sewer bills, newspaper reports, the township newsletter and notices that were required to be provided to ratepayers by the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) and Commonwealth Court.”
Allaband said that despite the township’s efforts, the township was told by the Office of Consumer Advocacy and the PUC that that since the PUC sets the rates, the concept of rate mitigation was removed from the proposal to sell the wastewater system.
“There is certainly nothing that the township can unilaterally do to revise or reverse the decision made by the PUC with regards to the rate increase,” he added. “The township was simply viewed by the PUC as one of Aqua’s customers who objected to the rate increase.
“This board as it sits here today has made a concerted effort to address concerns expressed by a number of township sewer ratepayers related to the recent rate increase approval by the PUC, as well as the sale of the system.”
Brodowski suggested that moving forward, those opposed to the
board’s decision should file a formal complaint with the PUC. To date, a total
of 17 formal complaints have been filed with the Commission – seven of which
are from New Garden residents, she said.
Unger offered that Aqua ratepayers in the township should take their fight to the Chester Water Authority, who has been embroiled in litigation with Aqua Pennsylvania to acquire the system after the Chester City Council voted last year to approve the sale of the system to Aqua for $410 million. The sale of the system would not just affect the residents of Chester, but impact over 200,000 customers across 37 municipalities in Chester and Delaware counties, many of whom would see the ramifications of the sale in their sewer bills.
“I would do everything in my power to call the new governor, call the PUC, call the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, call anyone who will listen to you and stop Chester Water,” he said. “Chester Water is big enough to function on its own.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].