County controller says she's "deeply troubled" over Pittsburgh mayor's plan to restructure PWSA

Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto is calling for a financial and legal advisory team to assist the city with what he called a “critical need to improve” the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

The team would consider long-term plans for the authority's operations and improve customer services to Pittsburgh residents.

"The City of Pittsburgh owns the water and sewer system that was leased to the PWSA decades ago. It's time to reevaluate this structure," Peduto said in a news release. "After systemic problems with inadequate billing, lead in our service lines and this week's flush and boil water advisory, the city has the duty to find new ways to improve our water services and create the safe, effective and sustainable water authority our residents deserve."

A request for proposals, known as an RFP, was issued Friday to identify an advisory team to manage evaluations of a possible restructuring of the PWSA to enhance water and sewer service delivery.

“This team, once chosen, will help kick-start a process of addressing the agency's repeated structural failures. This could include plans to implement alternate ways to provide water services, possibly through a public-private partnership to jointly manage some authority operations,” the release said.

The PWSA board has been advised of the request for proposals and supports it, the news release said.

In a statement regarding external reviews, PWSA officials said they support the mayor's initiative to have a team of experts review the authority:

"The Board and Executive Staff of PWSA are fully supportive of the City Council and the Mayor’s request to the Pennsylvania Auditor General and Pennsylvania Attorney General to conduct a review of PWSA. We will take all requested actions and cooperate fully to ensure that a complete and open review can be conducted.
"In addition, we fully support the Mayor’s initiative to hire a team of experts to take a fresh look at the Authority. The employees, contractors and Board of PWSA are working very hard to address the problems we face and welcome all of the support we can get in evaluating and fixing the Authority’s operations."

The Allegheny County controller, however, said she is opposed to the mayor's announcement. In a statement, Chelsa Wagner said:

"I am deeply troubled by Mayor Peduto's announcement today that he plans to partially privatize and further outsource control of our most basic public resource: Water.  I and thousands of Pittsburgh residents will not be distracted from this abdication of responsibility by smoke and mirrors. 
"The City continues to duck and hide in the face of our water crisis. This ducking and hiding, epitomized by today's announcement, is an affront to Pittsburgh residents and PWSA customers, who continue to go day to day without safe water.
"Mayor Peduto's announcement today is dead wrong.  Let me address why specifically:
"Restructuring' will not bring the leadership or accountability that has been lacking. We don't need restructuring to recognize that we have a crisis of lead in our water, and that our government has the responsibility and the resources to fix it now. 
"Privatization of our public water utility-which the mayor tried to mask in today's proposal as a public-private partnership-will result in lower health and environmental standards and increased customer rates. Just look to Coatesville in Eastern PA for a recent example of this.
"There are answers that are affordable and practical, but they will take work and action.  Other cities have taken the bull by the horns and stepped up and solved these problems to address safety and affordability for their ratepayers.  These cities have done so by looking inward and finding the best efficiencies.  Pittsburgh does not need more studies, more excuses, or more consultants.  We need clean water, and a Mayor who takes ownership, is ready to lead, and is accountable.  
"I'm calling on Mayor Peduto to pledge to the public that he will not privatize our water in any way, shape or form. Let's instead get to work on finding a solution that is safe and affordable for our taxpayers and ratepayers. 
"I offer my assistance to Mayor Peduto, and stand ready to take meaningful, democratic action to protect the public."

The mayor’s administration is also considering plans to gauge interest from organizations to partner with the city in the operation of the water and sewer assets, including a capital improvement plan to invest in critical infrastructure needs.

The advisory team will help with that endeavor by studying the financial condition of the city's water and sewer lines, engaging with residents and other water consumers for their input, recommending ways for the city to maximize public control in any partnership; and helping in other matters, according to the mayor's office.

"While we are not presently considering a full privatization, nor a third-party arrangement similar to the previous engagement with Veolia, we are seeking a full financial and operations partner. With disintegrating water infrastructure, massive debt problems and repeated failures in customer service and billing issues, deep changes to the PWSA are obviously necessary. We will work diligently with City Council, and the public, to identify the best solutions for our residents," said the mayor's chief of staff Kevin Acklin.

On Thursday, the City Council issued a news release that said all council members are "collectively requesting an audit" by the Pennsylvania auditor general and attorney general "regarding PWSA's contract with Veolia, Inc., outside contractors, PWSA's procurement process and all other areas under their respective jurisdiction."

In the news release, council members said, "Other areas that have prompted this level of scrutiny include, but is not limited to, the high lead levels in the water supplied to the residents of the City of Pittsburgh and the ongoing billing issues that have plagued the City of Pittsburgh residents for over two years."

Council members are collaborating with Peduto and City Controller Michael Lamb to resolve the issues with PWSA.

Responses to the RFP will be evaluated in the coming weeks, with hopes of hiring an advisory team by the end of February.

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