Updated 10:10 a.m.
At the state Public Utility Commission’s first public hearing on Aqua Pennsylvania’s proposed purchase of Delaware County’s regional wastewater system, a majority of residents testifying voiced support for the $276.5 million deal. Whether those views reflect the stance of consumers across the county was unclear.
But either way, the two hearings Wednesday will be a key part of the presiding administrative law judge’s recommendations whether to approve the Bryn Mawr-based private water utility’s bid to buy the Delaware County Regional Water Quality Control Authority. The sale, if approved, would mean the end of a long partisan struggle, as well as the largest privatization of a public water or wastewater system in Pennsylvania thus far.
At the hearings, attended virtually mostly by attorneys and stakeholders in the deal, a small number of Delco residents chose to comment. Ross Schmucki spoke first on behalf of both himself and the Swarthmore Borough Council, accusing Aqua PA of making a hasty closed-door, circular transaction that undervalued the DELCORA asset and left ratepayers in the lurch.
“Whatever the rate is, it should be paid, and it should be paid to the ratepayers,” Schmucki said. “They rushed through this… they just wanted it done.”
But as it turned out, Schmucki’s opinion was in the minority. The other seven residents who called in to share their thoughts during the hearing supported the DELCORA sale.
“[Aqua] is a local company based within our communities,” said Joseph John Ward of Ridley Township. If an out-of-state company were chosen to operate Delco’s wastewater system, he said, that would come with a learning curve — and an added expense. “It’s clear to me that a local utility company already operating within our county will provide the most benefit to all of us and be the most successful path moving forward.”
Other residents echoed the idea that an already-local company like Aqua Pennsylvania — which provides water and sewer service to customers in Delco as well as in Berks, Bucks, Chester and Montgomery counties — was best equipped to take over DELCORA. Geraldine Rochon of Ridley Township cited Aqua’s promise to keep the system’s employees. Darius Hill of Trainer and Tyra Cochran of Chester City said their familiarity with both Aqua and DELCORA meant they supported the sale.
“I support this merger for many, many reasons, but mainly because they’re promising to keep our rates reasonable, with no more than a 3% increase annually,” said Delco resident Jeanette Kwiatkowski, who was recently laid off because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A 3% increase was manageable, she said, but anything beyond that could be devastating.
Beth Gowie, calling in from Haverford Township, said her concern was mainly ecological. DELCORA has a history of environmental protection, she said, and “Aqua also maintains an excellent environmental track record.”
Over a decade ago, the state Department of Environmental Protection recognized Aqua Pennsylvania for its efforts in providing safe drinking water. But the company, a subsidiary of Essential Utilities Inc. (formerly known as Aqua America), has recently come under fire from food justice and environmental justice organizations such as Food and Water Watch for rapidly acquiring municipal systems and subsequently increasing water rates in areas across the country.
A county official’s view
Delaware County Council Chair Brian Zidek said he doesn’t think the opinions expressed at Wednesday’s first PUC session are indicative of county residents’ desires overall.
In an interview Wednesday, Zidek said he’s heard from hundreds of Delco residents questioning the reasoning behind the sales of both DELCORA and the Chester Water Authority to Aqua PA.
“This deal between DELCORA and Aqua was a bad one from jump,” Zidek said, adding that the timing of the “sweetheart, no-bid deal” — right before Democrats were primed to take control of the county for the first time in more than 150 years — wasn’t coincidental.
“You had a no-bid contract going through a significant donor to the Republican Party of Delaware County, executed behind closed doors … and the ratepayers and taxpayers in Delaware County are going to foot the bill for generations,” Zidek said. “Other communities who have experienced a private takeover of a public water or wastewater utility … [their experience is] that is that the rates go through the roof, for years and years to come.”
Robert J. Willert, executive director of DELCORA and head of the Ridley Township Republican Committee, disagreed Thursday.
“Before a final decision was made, DELCORA embarked on a comprehensive and transparent public consultation process, including numerous meetings with municipal authority customers, two presentations to the Delaware County Council, meetings with employees and labor union officials, and two open houses with citizens and ratepayers,” he said.
Willert added that Aqua PA has promised to keep rates to a 3% annual increase and said that without a plan, Delaware County’s rates would increase 10% instead.
So are Delco’s Democrats more concerned with Aqua PA, or with privatization in general?
A little of both, Zidek said. “It strikes me as madness … but because it’s sort of behind the scenes, people aren’t paying attention, you get effectively a heist: This valuable asset from Delaware County going to political insiders to benefit other political insiders.”
“It’s obviously not the sexiest of issues, we’re talking about our wastewater treatment plant, but these things cost taxpayers a lot of money. They add up … it’s stuff like this that has happened over the years, individually they don’t break our backs but collectively, they do.”
Judge Angela Jones, who presided over both public input hearings Wednesday, will recommend a decision to the Public Utility Commission, due in January. The commission’s decision must then be rendered by March.
Due to a process extension and subsequent appeal to that extension, Jones said Wednesday, those dates may be subject to change.
This article was updated to add comments from DELCORA’s executive director.
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