People Power May Flush Bucks County Sewer Sale

Following a sustained public outcry to the billion dollar deal, county commissioners recommended Tuesday that the water and sewer authority discontinue all discussions with Aqua America.
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The Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority announced in July they were in discussions with Aqua America to sell off the sewer portion of the municipal service for $1.1 billion. Sales of water and sewer systems have been on the rise in Pennsylvania, but residents who have contested the sales, or experienced huge billing increases following a sale, sounded the alarm.

Neighbors Opposing Privatization Efforts, or NOPE, a grassroots group originally organized by David McMahon, assisted Bucks County residents with organizing and providing strategies to better communicate with their county commissioners and other elected officials. NOPE had already successfully fended off Aqua in Norristown. Dozens of Bucks County residents immediately turned out for advocacy planning sessions and at BCSWA meetings in opposition to the sale.

Tuesday’s announcements from each of the Bucks County Commissioners to scrap negotiations with Aqua America came as a surprise, but illustrate the impact of advocacy and activism.

Kofi Osei, of Towamencin NOPE, believes the unpopularity of the sale of water and sewer systems transcends political partisanship and contributed to the group’s success in Bucks County.

“Decisions about how we build infrastructure and how we fund it is a fundamental political discussion and I think that is the core of why this issue resonates so well,” Osei said. “People want to know they can reliably drink from their tap and flush the toilet at the cheapest possible cost. The only types of people who think adding investors into the middle of that equation makes sense are investors themselves or are public officials swayed by lobbyists.”

Anthony Bellitto, executive director of the North Penn Water Authority (NPWA), participated in NOPE’s Tuesday night Zoom call and revealed a major disparity between water utilities managed by local municipalities versus those that are privately operated by corporations. According to online data, the chief executive officer for Aqua receives annual compensation in excess of $4.2 million; the NPWA’s entire annual payroll, for 52 employees, is $4.1 million.

“People can easily see privatization for the scam that it is – a loan disguised as a gift, wrapped up with empty promises that must be paid back with interest through exorbitant rate increases, resulting in no better service to the customers, while the private company’s upper management and investors fill their own pockets with obscene amounts of profits,” said Bellitto. 

While the commissioners’ recommendation carries weight, the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority must vote on discontinuing the sale at their next meeting. 

NOPE members said their work will not be complete until they see the BCWSA board members take a vote to officially end the Aqua deal at their upcoming September meeting.

McMahon credits some of the group’s success to building new relationships and by drawing from ongoing experiences in various municipalities.

“We now have resources from Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association (PMAA) with their key studies and statistics. They were tracking the sales and the rate increases between municipal and private systems over time,” he said. “We had people who were township officials, or former township officials, so they were peers and colleagues and not just voters and residents, and that was a factor.”

One such local official is Elen Snyder, a Supervisor for Newtown Township.

“Due to the public outcry against probable soaring costs associated with the sale of BCSWA to a private company, the Newtown Supervisors wholeheartedly agreed with our community when drafting our resolution opposing the sale,” said Snyder.

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NOPE knows that curtailing future sales of municipal water and sewer authorities in Pennsylvania will require addressing existing and proposed legislation in Harrisburg.

State Representative Melissa Shusterman (D-157) hopes to have  a moratorium placed on all water and sewer sales until there are assurances that sales do not have a negative impact on consumers.

“As it is currently written, ACT 12, Section 1329 allows the PUC to approve sales of public sewer systems, even against the recommendation of the Public Utility Commission Administrative Law Judge. This process is severely impacting our residents,” Shusterman said.
Senate Bill 597,  a moving piece of legislation that NOPE is watching and hopes to derail, was drafted by water lobbyists. The proposed law would favor privatization because (a) it imposes new regulatory burdens on municipalities while exempting investor-owned PUC regulated companies; (b) forces ratepayers to fund market research for industry acquisitions; and, (c) serves to benefits corporate takeovers while camouflaged as consumer and environmental protections.

Thanks to NOPE, those served by the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority may not be facing dramatic rate increases.

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Jenny Stephens

Jenny Stephens is a freelance journalist who has written for a variety of publications, including The Reporter. An avid collector of all things vintage, she resides in the Philadelphia area.