Resistance begins against the potential sale of the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority

A person walks along a beach in Neshaminy State Park in Bucks County.

File photo: Trails and river beaches at Neshaminy State Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania are open. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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A county-wide campaign led by residents is sprouting in Bucks County, in opposition to the potential sale of the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority.

Community members and local officials are perking up after news spread of BCWSA exploring an offer from Aqua Pennsylvania for about $600 million to buy the county’s water and sewer utilities.

Brian Fries, BCWSA spokesperson, said the authority has “a fiduciary responsibility to thoroughly examine all details presented to us, ensuring that our customers, communities, and partners always come first.”

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BCWSA paid more than $50,000 for an assessment by Gannett-Flemming, a private engineering firm, which determined the BCWSA overall value of about $1.1 billion for the sewer system and $300 million for the water system.

The authority represents about 100,000 households in Bucks, Montgomery, and Chester Counties, and is one of the largest authorities in the state.

Bucks County representative James O’Malley said the county has “not received specific details on any such offers.”

“The Bucks County Board of Commissioners would not receive a request to approve an agreement of this kind unless first independently approved by the BCWSA,” said O’Malley.

Kofi Osei, 29, founder of Towamencin Neighbors Opposing Privatization Efforts, NOPE, is helping to organize a county-wide effort against the BCWSA sale.

NOPE members are considering attending commissioner meetings for the municipalities that would be impacted.

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“We’d like to try and have them pass anti-privatization ordinances for each municipality. So hopefully each of these municipal governments actually write to Bucks County and the BCWSA in opposition,” said Osei.

Osei said they also hope to start canvassing and spreading more awareness, after much of the conversation about the sale happened without much public knowledge or input.

To get to the point of paying for an assessment and for an authority to say it is “exploring” the option to sell, “means they’re way further along than they say they are,” Osei said.

Osei’s and residents’ main concern about privatization is not different from Osei’s concern about Towamencin’s privatization efforts: rising utility rates.

But because this authority is so big, Osei has a somewhat larger looming concern: selling BCWSA “would be giving whatever the successful bidder would be, a lot more political power.”

“I’m not interested in them having that many customers and continuing to pay for a lobbyist with their rates,” said Osei.

Aqua already purchased Bensalem’s water utility, and now its sewer system, within the BCWSA, is at risk of privatization.

Residents there have already experienced rising rates, and are nervous about more.

Bensalem resident Pat Ridgeway said “I have never lived anywhere where I paid high prices for water and then paid half again for the water going out. I feel that when utilities are sold to private companies, they can charge whatever they want with no protection or recourse for the consumer.”

Tom Tosti, director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees District Council 88, has already started traveling to all the municipalities’ board meetings that would be impacted by the sale to spread awareness of the sale and spur action amongst residents. Kofi said NOPE hopes to team up with Tosti in these efforts.

Tosti created a 14-page anti-privatization information packet including notes from Food & Water watch on the ways that privatizing has negatively impacted others in the past and clear action items for residents.

According to Tosti, after an email blast campaign, so far over 600 emails were sent to the county commissioners and to the BCWSA opposing the privatization. 400 of those were sent by Bucks County residents who may be impacted.

Tosti is concerned about losing transparency and service quality from the private company.

“The other concern is that as a public entity, you have the ability to do what we did yesterday and go to a public meeting and address concerns,” said Tosti.

“When you put it into private hands, you lose that. You lose the ability to have input.”

Tosti has so far visited Middletown, Hulmeville, Penndel, and other municipalities, to spread awareness about the potential sale.

He’s also concerned about BCWSA employees that his union represents, losing their pensions if BCWSA sells.

“Because they [now] fall under the Pennsylvania municipal retirement system. And once they become private, they can’t be in that entity anymore,” said Tosti.

As NOPE members draw out their plans, they still worry about the speed at which the BCWSA will make their decisions.

“We’re not sure how fast they’re going to do this,” said Osei. “Apparently they can do a lot during executive sessions and out of nowhere it’s on the agenda to sell.”

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