Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has set a new course for its future, in which its customers can rely on clean, safe water and rarely ever think about the authority headquartered at 1200 Penn Avenue.
The authority hit a turning point last week.
Only a few people sat in the first floor boardroom of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority on Monday, Feb. 4. Notice of the special meeting of the board of directors had not included an agenda, but a small stack of printed copies lay on a table by the door. It was short: roll call, public comment, reports, and a resolution to terminate a longstanding cooperation agreement with the City of Pittsburgh.
“The old agreement is now invalid,” said board chair Paul Leger. Lawyers for the city and PWSA now have 90 days to negotiate a new agreement. “This is not a hostile arrangement, this is a cooperative arrangement, as the contract says.”
It’s been more than three years since Pittsburgh woke up to a full-blown lead crisis, and discovered that PWSA teetered on collapse. Today, PWSA officials say the authority is not what is was, and is coming into its own. It’s a classic coming of age story: hopeful and painful, full of possibility and the feeling that everything is on the line.
The cooperation agreement terminated by the board governs how PWSA interacts with the city. Written in 1995, it includes a page of services the city promises to carry out on the authority’s behalf: sewers inspections, repair of catch basins and manholes, files, records and map maintenance. None of that happens anymore, said Leger. It’s outdated.
“I look at the termination of that agreement as graduation from high school,” he said. “We have been essentially teenagers and kids up till now. We've been growing up and now we're ready to take our first independent action alone which is to draft a new agreement and get out of mommy and daddy's hair for a while.”
PWSA had a rocky childhood. It used to be the city water department, but in the 1990s Pittsburgh developed a huge budget hole, and city officials decided to make the department a municipal authority. That way, it could take out debt and use it to pay Pittsburgh, said City Councilor Corey O’Connor.
“In the mid-90s they should have never done that because it cost people more money and basically you just used it as a cash cow to subsidize capital projects in Pittsburgh, which is a terrible idea,” he said. “We should still have ownership of PWSA.”
PWSA chugged along in the city’s background until 2015. That year PWSA began to clean house: it fired Veolia, a private company hired in 2012 to manage the authority. But infrastructure failures, billing problems, lead in the water: those were already in motion, and took a long time to address, said City Councilor Deb Gross, who is also a PWSA board member.
“Internally, when you look at the organization, there’s actually entirely new people, especially in the executive suite,” she said. “They are making great decisions, they have much better skills, they’re much more responsive.”
Executive director Bob Weimar has a mantra: get stuff done. (In other contexts “stuff” is replaced with a different word).
“We had been chided for so long as not being able to get stuff done, it seemed like the appropriate thing to start saying to everyone.”
Saying was a precursor to doing. For the first time in its history, PWSA has a long-term capital improvement plan instead of simply fixing problems as they appear. The authority is financially stable; it now has a water quality group and a stormwater group, said Weimar.
“The board said we need to make PWSA an entity that will sustain itself for the future,” he said. “That is going to be the board's legacy and it's going to be mine.”
Leger said what’s a little further off is his ultimate benchmark of success—invisibility.
“For me, a perfect utility is one you never think about, it's just there,” he said. “I want to be able to turn on the tap and the water comes out and I trust that it will be there and I trust that it will be safe.”
As with any good coming of age story, challenges remain. Perhaps the stickiest is the capital lease. The lease, also signed in 1995, was essentially a rent-to-own arrangement: in 2025 PWSA can buy the infrastructure it manages for $1. O’Connor and Gross said that clause could jeopardize the future of Pittsburgh’s water.
“What's to say PWSA doesn't cut a deal as soon as 2025 agreement is done?” said O’Connor. “[They could sell to] a private company and we've got to avoid that.”
“I really think the people of Pittsburgh need to maintain ownership of that asset,” said Gross.
The people of Pittsburgh will continue to own PWSA because it’s a municipal authority, and council will still approve the members of the board, said Leger.
“In that sense they have oversight, but they don't have oversight by keeping the assets,” he said. “And while I trust this city council and this mayor completely not to sell these assets, because they've said they won't, give me 10 years. I don't know who is the mayor and I don't know who is on city council and I don't know what their need will be for additional money.”
Despite recommendations from consultants and outside proposals for new, competing water systems, public officials say PWSA should remain a public asset owned by the public. And thanks to a bunch of legal strictures, the ongoing discussion about what to do in regard to the 2025 option must play out in public.
Under the cooperation agreement and capital lease, the future of PWSA’s physical infrastructure is spoken for at the moment. Any changes or new deals to would have to be approved by City Council and PWSA’s board and require public meetings. In addition, PWSA has what amounts to a large, nebby, protective family: its conduct as a municipal authority is governed by Pennsylvania law and Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission began regulating PWSA last year.