Organizers scramble for signatures to block Norristown sewer sale

In June, the borough’s council approved an $82 million sale of its sewer system, but critics say the process is rushed and won’t benefit residents.

A digital information sign at Norristown’s municipal complex advertises the 2020 census. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A digital information sign at Norristown’s municipal complex advertises the 2020 census. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Organizers in Norristown are rallying this weekend to oppose the sale of the city’s municipal wastewater utility.

In June, the Times Herald reported that the Norristown Municipal Council voted 5-2 in favor of selling its sewer system to Aqua Pennsylvania for $82 million. That private company currently serves towns in nearly half of Pennsylvania counties, including Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery.

But some Norristown residents say the process felt rushed, and that privatization will not be a good thing for the community.

“They know they are doing something wrong,” said Jacob Butterly, an organizer with the group Put People First! PA. He and others are working to collect 1,500 signatures from residents to force a public injunction to block the sale. Butterly hopes that the borough council will scrap the deal, substantially modify it, or let voters decide on it as a ballot measure.

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According to the Times Herald, elected officials in Norristown have been exploring the sale of the utility since 2017. One of the driving motivations is that in order to keep utility costs low for customers, capital improvements have been put off, and rates haven’t kept up with rising operational costs. Aqua has said that any rate increases will happen gradually over several years. The borough administrator argued the deal was needed to give Norristown financial stability.

Butterly calls that an “artificial argument,” noting that if there’s a need for capital, the council could shift money currently budgeted for its police department rather than sell off the infrastructure.

“There’s money to go around,” he said.

The millions of dollars generated from the sale could go toward paying off existing debts and facilities improvements in Norristown.

Much of the feedback sent to the council has been against the sale, with many residents saying they are skeptical of Aqua’s record and concerned that there’s not sufficient information available to the public.

Butterly said organizers only have until July 14 to gather enough petition signatures. They opted to hold a rally on Saturday outside the Norristown courthouse in part because door-knocking and traditional grassroots organizing tools are unsafe amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In neighboring Delaware County, a deal to sell the Delaware County Regional Water Authority (DELCORA) to Aqua for a record $276 million is under question. The deal was brokered by Republicans who used to hold a majority on the Delaware County Council. Since Democrats took control of the council, they have tried to nullify the deal by dissolving DELCORA. 

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In Norristown, borough council members are Democrats, so the dispute over the proposed sale is not about party politics.

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