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PWSA Director Says Authority At Point Of ‘Substantial Collapse’ Amid Evaluation

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Members of a panel charged with restructuring Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority listen to Steve Steckler of consulting firm Infrastructure Management Group, Inc.

Before presenting initial findings on the state of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority Monday, Steve Steckler of the consulting firm Infrastructure Management Group, Inc. said, “none of them are very good.”

IMG, Inc. was selected in April by a mayoral panel charged with deciding how best to restructure PWSA, which has grappled with elevated lead levels in its drinking water, billing issues, mounting debt and an aging system.

Steckler urged panel members to separate the organization of PWSA from its need for a capital improvement plan that will enable the authority to finance and rebuild crumbling water and sewer infrastructure.

“One is going to have a big impact on what people pay for water and sewer services,” said Steckler. “But in order for them to have faith in what they pay for that, the organization needs to be improved.”

The initial findings from IMG, Inc.'s team characterize the authority as “a failed organization atop a dangerous and crumbling structure,” though Steckler praised the “fox hole valor” of PWSA staff for holding the organization together with limited tools and resources.

Assessments of PWSA’s maintenance practices, processes and organization found lack of training, lack of systems data, leaks, neglect, a crumbling water treatment plant and a distribution system that loses 50 percent of the clean water it produces, and 20 percent of the authority’s workforce on short-term disability.

Steckler described the findings as “startling,” “unusual,” and “shocking."

“They have no resources, they have no systems, they have no records and they don’t have a strategy,” he said. “None of that performance information exists. It’s like starting from scratch.”

The mayor’s office asked IMG, Inc. for candor and “no sugarcoating,” said chief of staff Kevin Acklin.

Three broad categories of restructuring were outlined: internal improvements, in which PWSA would undergo major restructuring but remain in control of assets and operations with some outsourcing of services, such as customer service; a permanent transfer of assets and operations to a nonprofit, a public agency, or a for-profit entity; or a transfer of operations in which assets and operations would be ceded to a private developer for a long-term lease.

PWSA’s interim executive director Bob Weimar said he doesn’t dispute any of IMG, Inc.’s findings, though he might have phrased them differently.

“We are not working the modern tools,” he said. “It’s all coming to a point of substantial collapse, all at one time. It’s that collision of several different factors that are going to require substantial investment, and we’re going to have to make judgment calls as to where we put that money.”

Turning PWSA around will take a holistic, data-driven approach; piecemeal initiatives won’t do it, said Steckler.

The next public meeting will be held Sept. 12, and feature speakers from two different cities who restructured their water systems.

In the interim, IMG, Inc. will continue to evaluate PWSA’s management, operations and internal controls, complete analyses of how various restructuring options would impact PWSA’s finances and ratepayers, and will also begin community outreach. A website for public comment will launch this week at Members of the blue ribbon panel urged IMG, Inc. and its subcontractors to hold community meetings, as well.

On Nov. 8 IMG, Inc. will present its final assessment of restructuring options.