The Towamencin fight to stop a sewer sale continues: Voters support a new local law that prohibits privatization

The suburban Philadelphia township is one of the many Pennsylvania communities battling the privatization of public water and sewer systems.

A sign reads

On May 16, Towamencin residents vote on a new local law that forbids the privatization of its sewer system. (Towamencin NOPE)

A movement to stop a sewer system sale in Towamencin, Montgomery County, has made strides.

Towamencin residents passed a new local law forbidding the privatization of the township’s sewer system.

The suburban Philadelphia township is one of the many Pennsylvania communities battling the privatization of public water and sewer systems. Towamencin NOPE, “Towamencin Neighbors Opposing Privatization Efforts,”has been working towards this day for about a year.

In November’s general election, residents voted to create a Government Study Commission. That commission, made up of NOPE residents, wrote a new home rule charter prohibiting the sale of water, wastewater, and stormwater systems.

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That charter made it onto Tuesday’s ballot and passed by 310 votes. Supporters led with 2,728 votes, against 2,418 votes in opposition, according to unofficial election results Wednesday morning. 5,282 votes were cast, out of the 13,147 registered voters.

Selling the township’s water, wastewater, and stormwater public utilities to private entities will be illegal once the charter takes effect on July 1.

Jenn Foster, a resident who served on the Government Study Commission and fought with Towamencin NOPE for the charter to pass, says the group is “thrilled” with the outcome of the election.

“This is an incredible moment not just for Towamencin, but for other communities in Pennsylvania who feel unheard by their elected officials.”

In May 2022, the Towamencin board of supervisors approved the sale of the township’s sewer system to NextEra for $115 million. NextEra backed out of the sale in March, and the supervisors approved to sell it to Pennsylvania American Water instead. Towamencin NOPE believes the charter gives them legal grounds to stop the sale before the deal is finalized by both parties and approved by the Pennsylvania Utility Commission.

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Residents like Foster have been concerned about rising sewer rates if the system were sold to a private entity. Pennsylvania American Water rates are almost triple the cost of Towamencin’s current rates, according to NOPE. The group has also been concerned over government transparency and loss of local control of a publicly-owned utility.

Home rule charters are not particularly unique — Bryn Athyn, Cheltenham, Horsham, Norristown, Plymouth, and Whitemarsh are under home rule in Montgomery County. Home rule basically provides room for more local control. It allows municipalities to craft their own ordinances based on local need — anything that’s not specifically denied by the state constitution.

Resident Kofi Osei, founder of Towamencin NOPE, believes it’s the first time home rule has been used like this — for a sale that is already approved by township officials, and used in resistance to township officials who oppose the charter and support the sale.

The township has posted its own FAQs about the sale and explanations for why it believes selling would be good for residents. Officials have said the sale would eliminate township debt and the earnings would fund new infrastructure projects. WHYY News requested comments from township supervisors and Township Manager David Kraynik and is awaiting a response.

Osei himself has been met with criticism from some residents who oppose the home rule charter, including from Nancy Becker, vice chairperson of the Montgomery County GOP and member of the Towamencin planning commission. Becker and others ran in opposition to Osei and the NOPE candidates to earn spots on the Government Study Commission, in a failed attempt to stop the creation of the charter. Becker said there was “no need to change” the township, and that it was “run well.”

Osei said the board of supervisors can decide to comply with the charter and terminate the sale with Pennsylvania American Water. Pennsylvania American Water could also decide to back out.

If the board doesn’t comply, Osei said residents could sue the township and a judge would be left to decide if the township has to follow the charter.

Towamencin Nope members have been proud of their grassroots effort to stop the sale. Since 2021, when the local group was created, they’ve activated residents. Their Facebook group grew from 400 members in April 2022 to over 700 members now. NOPE organizers have been knocking on doors and talking with the public about the potential impacts of the sewer sale.

Three days ahead of the vote, Osei said he was optimistic that the charter would pass as long as people showed up.

He said he hopes the charter passing will send a message “across the Commonwealth that privatization isn’t a good thing.” Foster hopes their success can serve as a model for “how others in Pennsylvania can fight the hostile takeover of our water and wastewater by private monopolies.”

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