PWSA is looking into options to address customers’ fears over upcoming rate increase

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The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority's water treatment plant in Lincoln–Lemington–Belmar. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority's water treatment plant in Lincoln–Lemington–Belmar. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is considering options to address concerns of its customers over an upcoming rate increase scheduled to take effect in 2021.

A notice is being sent out with water bills this month indicating that PWSA has requested rate increases for 2021 and 2022 from the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission [PUC]. If the Authority’s entire request and the multi-year rate plan is approved as filed, the total bill for water and wastewater conveyance service for a typical Residential customer using 3,000 gallons per month would increase from $72.49 to $86.31 per month or by 19.1% in 2021,” the note reads. 

Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Erika Strassburger, who was appointed to the PWSA board in February, asked at the end of the Friday board meeting, which took place on a conference call because of the coronavirus, if there was a way to reassure people or pull back on the communications about the rate increase, “with record numbers of people out of work.”

“Or perhaps we need to think about a delay” in implementing the rate increase entirely, she said. “I’ve gotten a number of concerns. This is adding to the stress level for people who do not have a steady stream of income right now.”

Bob Weimar, the executive director for PWSA, said the rate increase wouldn’t go into effect until next year. “We’ll discuss how we can get a message out there to allay the fears,” he said. 

 

Weimar said he would prepare something for the board to look at but it wasn’t immediately clear if a delay in the rate increase would be an option presented to the board. “Bob’s reference was that we can step up communications to explain that this is a rate request and is subject to PUC approval, and would not be implemented until next year at the earliest,” Will Pickering, the deputy executive director at PWSA explained in an email after the meeting.

“I’m not personally assured that this [the coronavirus] will not be having an impact in a year to come,” said Paul Leger, the board chair. “So that may not be the final answer.”

PWSA will continue making progress in repairing lead lines, replacing drinking water infrastructure and expanding its stormwater program. To cover those plans the board approved a $300 million line of credit for its capital expenses going forward and allocated $59 million for water main replacements.

Many of its current capital projects have been put on hold due to COVID-19, except for work deemed “essential.” PWSA continues to ensure everyone has access to clean drinking water. PWSA has promised that it won’t shut off water to any customers during the crisis, currently extending through at least the end of May.

The note to customers says there are three ways they can challenge PWSA’s rate increase: speak at a PUC public hearing, send PUC a letter or file a formal complaint with PUC.

Jennifer Presutti, PWSA’s director of finance, wrote in an email that she thinks PWSA will be on sound footing in the short term, even taking a conservative approach. “Most utilities are bracing for a 15% to 20% impact on revenues,” she wrote. “We ran the numbers for a 30% impact and are still able to meet all of our obligations for the next four months.”

Presutti added that she would be paying close attention to the revenues “and adjust accordingly with expenditures” but did not specify what might have to be cut in the future to keep the budget balanced for the year.

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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