When Jim Turner leaves the board of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority at the end of 2021, it will be a test of just how far the authority has come.
At some boards in Pittsburgh, there is very little discussion. Not with Turner around. He will often have asked three or four questions before another board member even has a chance to jump in. Turner asks questions sometimes even when he knows the answer, so that it will go into the public record. Along with hiring an executive director and setting policies, Turner believes the board’s key role is to “question everything.”
At PWSA’s August board meeting, this belief was on full display: He asked for an updated report about the agency’s “single points of failure” by the end of the year. He pushed the leadership to increase the diversity of its contractors. When costs on certain contracts came in over what was budgeted, he asked the staff to explain how they would avoid the problem next time. He peppered the staff with compliments for good reports.
Turner is likely the last of his kind to serve on the board. He paid his way through college working in steel mills around Pittsburghs. During one of his shifts at the Carrie Blast Furnaces, he remembers seeing his coworkers waving their arms at him outside the cast house and he had no idea why. His pants had caught fire from molten metal that had spilled.
Turner’s depth of experience goes back to even before PWSA’s founding. As the city’s second budget director under Mayor Richard Caliguiri, Turner worked with the city’s water department before it became its own entity. And then again under Mayor Sophie Masloff, he worked for the city when PWSA only existed as a legal entity to finance water improvements.
So it was only fitting that Turner, along with Paul Leger, put the final nail in the coffin of the city’s financial tentacles into PWSA in 2019. They negotiated a new water agreement with the city.
“Essentially PWSA had given the city $7.1 million every year for no reason. So we said we can’t do this anymore,“ said Leger, who was board chair at the time.
Some of that money was paying for PWSA’s retirement contributions as authority employees were part of the city’s pension. As the agreement was being finalized, PWSA established its own retirement fund.
Leger said he believes PWSA had been paying a lot more to the city than it had been receiving. Between 2021 and 2025, the city will begin paying for water. It used to receive 600 million gallons for free, but no one kept track of how much it actually used. Some city buildings still don’t have water meters, and Leger estimated that the city’s water bill might eventually be more than $10 million per year.
The negotiations also put an end to one of the most vexing of PWSA’s political challenges: The millions of dollars it gave away to Pennsylvania American Water every year.
An agreement passed by Caliguiri when he was president of the city council in the 1970s required water prices to be the same across the city. Since American Water had higher rates, PWSA (and the city before it) sent a check to American Water for the difference, which over a single 15-year period cost more than $45 million. Starting in 2022, the city, not PWSA, will be responsible for paying the full water subsidy.
Alex Sciulli, who ran the city’s water department under Turner in the late 1980s and is now PWSA board’s chair, said in 40 years of work in engineering and finance, the group Turner led “was the best group of colleagues I ever had in my entire career.”
The last of his kind
That was a long time ago. Turner joined the board just as he was retiring from public life in 2017, after stints at the Allegheny Conference, The Pennsylvania Economy League and as an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh where one of his former students was future Mayor Bill Peduto. Turner was a workaholic. Peduto used to bump into him at the Boston Market in Shadyside late in the evening. The mayor felt a special camaraderie with him in those moments because he knew Turner had also been devoting nearly all his waking hours to the city.
In retirement, Turner turned his work ethic toward himself. He’s lost 50 pounds, biking 20 miles per day, and has begun a series of trips across the country to see every national park and presidential library. Sometimes he travels with a few friends, sometimes he travels alone. His son was one of the only people in his pandemic bubble.
His last planned foray into civic life was with the PWSA. Peduto invited him onto the board in March 2017 to replace one of the three board members who had resigned. Turner served on the executive committee, putting in long hours trying to provide the kind of scrutiny that it felt like the agency had been missing. When Leger, the board’s chair, retired from the board in March, he thanked Turner for reading many of the long documents he himself didn’t have time to.
Turner also helped a new committee of local experts make recommendations for new PWSA board members. The committee, led by former Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, has tried to pick people with a broad set of skills, greater diversity and, most importantly, independence from the mayor’s office. Peduto has supported all of the new committee’s board recommendations so far. Now everyone on the board but Turner has been chosen in this way.
According to Peduto’s Blue Ribbon Panel, the committee was supposed to be the body that codified a separation between PWSA and city politics. But the city council didn’t want to take away its own role in selecting the board, and it wasn’t clear whether state law even allowed it.
Instead, the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission [PUC] has begun to play that role. PUC oversight was initially a compromise between Republicans in Harrisburg, who wanted PWSA privatized, and local Democrats, who wanted PWSA’s transformation to remain public.
By the time the PUC started looking into PWSA, Bob Weimar was already firmly in control, and the agency didn’t recommend the leadership overhaul that might lead to privatization. Instead, the PUC has served as a buffer for PWSA, giving it space from the city to raise rates to pay for infrastructure upgrades but also feedback from ratepayers. The PUC has allowed PWSA to raise its rates but by less than what was asked for.
It’s still the PWSA board that provides the first level of oversight to ensure the organization doesn’t return to a state of crisis.
Turner has tried to act independently, pushing for rate hikes bigger than he knew residents would like and pushing back against water activists whose demands he worried would put the authority’s finances in jeopardy. He believes technocratic responsibility should win over popular whims.
“At the end of the day, if you’re a board member, you better vote your conscience about what you consider to be right and wrong, regardless of whether people are in favor of it,” he said.
What comes next
Most Pittsburghers probably don’t know just how high their water and sewage bills are going to get.
The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority [ALCOSAN] has plans to charge residents more than $100 per month alone in 2036. ALCOSAN’s fee only makes up about one third of the average city of Pittsburgher’s water and sewage bill right now.
PWSA is also planning to invest $1.4 billion over the next five years. So Pittsburgh residents will be paying an ever-larger share of their income to fix the region’s neglected water system for at least a generation.
PWSA says any future rate increases must be approved by the PUC, which recently gave preliminary approval to an 11% increase over the next two years. PWSA didn’t provide specific estimates for how high its customer bills will be in 2036 but an estimate by the consultant IMG in 2017 predicted the average water and sewer bill in the city would quadruple, which would make it around $300 per month by 2043.
Nearly a third of its customers already have bills that are considered unaffordable. PWSA has been trying to sign up as many of its low-income customers as possible to assistance programs and announced Oct. 14 that they had signed up more than 5,000, substantially more than other local water utilities.
The cheap price Pittsburgh residents paid for water in the past wasn’t cheap. The cost was just passed on to future residents and future politicians to deal with.
It’s not just that the city and PWSA leaders didn’t invest enough in the city’s pipes. They didn’t even fully fund the investments they did make. In 2019, PWSA issued a bond that will finally pay off the $100 million PWSA borrowed in 1995. For 24 years, PWSA had only been paying the interest on the debt.
Pittsburgh residents are now going to have to pay for the big changes that the previous generations made to keep the system going in the past.
PWSA created a public dashboard for the public to see if it’s getting good value for its money. The metrics include how many lead lines and water meters have been replaced, how fast calls are being answered and how long it takes to repair pipe breaks. And its yearly reports include even more detailed measures, such as how many water valves and pipes are being replaced, how many public meetings they attend and how many miles of pipe have been inspected.
There is some hope the federal government will step in to spread the cost to taxpayers across the country. But it’s far from clear at this point how much help PWSA could receive. Water systems across the country are facing similar challenges.
“All utilities have these areas that need energy and attention. We’re just very open in how we’re tackling it because we want people to appreciate the importance of it, why we’re asking more of our customers,” said Will Pickering, PWSA’s CEO.
As the water bills rise, PWSA could face increasing scrutiny about how it’s spending money.
Jamil Bey, president and CEO of the UrbanKind Institute, said given the large impact PWSA’s work will have, it’s more important than ever that it increases the diversity of its contractors and workforce.
Right now, he said, only one of PWSA’s 38 contractors has a substantial Black workforce, and most of PWSA’s Black employees are in lower-paying jobs. A PWSA spokesperson said more than $10 million of work has gone to diverse contractors in 2021 and 9% of those businesses were minority-owned. Bey says Pickering has been more proactive about beginning to address these historical inequities than previous directors.
Democratic mayoral nominee Ed Gainey has said he doesn’t support the kind of rate hikes that PWSA’s been making, let alone the large rate hikes projected into the future. There is nothing legally to prevent Gainey from appointing a board that opposes rate hikes. Gainey told PublicSource he would look at the issue more closely if he’s elected in November.
In addition to opposing rate increases, Republican nominee Tony Moreno said he would push for new leadership at PWSA. He doesn’t believe Pickering, who came from a communications job, has the right kind of experience.
Moreno said he hasn’t read any of the reports about the crises at PWSA and is skeptical of how board members are selected now. Moreno said he would like to try to improve PWSA internally first but he would be open to working with a private company if that doesn’t work.
Back in 2017, the consultant Infrastructure Management Group [IMG] said the best chance of preventing Pittsburgh’s water bills from skyrocketing would be to sell the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to a private water company.
Pennsylvania has historically allowed private water utilities to keep their rates the same across the commonwealth. So if PWSA was sold, the enormous burden of PWSA’s infrastructure needs could be spread out over half a million or more other customers.
A 2016 change in state law led a number of small municipalities to sell off their systems to help deal with debts. The law allows utilities to recoup the sale price from customers, so it’s become a popular backdoor way to raise revenue without having to raise taxes. But IMG noted that Pittsburgh’s liabilities are much greater than any previous sale to a private utility and their customers outside Pittsburgh might sue to stop the takeover when their water bills go up.
Brenda Smith of the Our Water Campaign says the threat of privatization could come back at any time. She pointed out that in 2020, the water company Aqua America (now called Essential Utilities Inc.) bought Peoples Gas. So she believes the privatization battle of 2018 could soon return. “I have no doubt that their long-term plan is to get PWSA,” Smith said.
Turner, like most of the board’s recent members, hopes to convince Pittsburgh’s new mayor to keep PWSA separate from the mayor’s office. One of the keys to keeping PWSA out of another period of crisis, they say, is to invest now, even though it’s painful.
“Neighbors ask me what I do. I say, ‘I raise your rates,’” he said. “It makes me such a popular guy. If you don’t do them, they don’t go away. They just become more expensive and cause more problems.”
Read a final analysis based on the series: “A quick primer on the ups and downs of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.”
Explore more stories in this series: “A water crisis swept through Pittsburgh five years ago: This is the fullest account of what happened.”
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
This story was fact–checked by Matt Maielli.
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