Residents flooded a conference room at Neumann University last Friday afternoon hoping to douse the possibility of the Chester Water Authority (CWA) being sold to a private company. Much of the fear stemmed from an Oct. 25th letter Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland sent to CWA board Chair Cynthia Leitzell. The two-and-a-half-page letter has been making its rounds on social media. It states in part:
“I am certain it is in all of our interests to pursue a more comprehensive and cooperative effort to consider how this great asset (the CWA) can best serve our broader community and keep water rates and water quality high. To that end, my administration has engaged a team of experts to ensure that the interest and rights of the city and its residents are expressed, understood and incorporated into any evolution of the Authority.
“The city plans to exit Act 47 within the next three years and do so from a position of strength. Some form of monetization of the water system will almost certainly be part of this final stretch of the recovery effort. To be clear, the city is in no way endorsing any particular form of monetization but rather we are demanding a careful, comprehensive, and cooperative examination of every possibility. Indeed, I am confident there are many good monetization options that will meet our shared goals of maintaining a top-flight water system with reasonable and competitive rates as well as offer a fair distribution of proceeds to provide substantial municipal budget relief for the city, and potentially, other municipalities in the service area.”
Residents in attendance, like Bernadette Wright, of Chester, fear a switch to a private company will mean a hike in the water bill. Wright and others were most concerned about senior citizens.
“I have elderly parents who don’t need the responsibility of another monthly bill. This company (Aqua America) is going to charge them a $65 flat rate before they turn their faucet on,” said Wright. “It’s ridiculous. They could have thought of more creative ways to bring revenue to the city than to sell out to these folks. This company lowballed them. Why are we being lowballed? The senior citizens are the ones who are going to be punched in the face with this: ‘Do I buy my medicine or pay my water bill?’ That shouldn’t be.”
“I have a 93 year-old grandmom on fixed income so my concern is about the elderly on fixed income who can’t afford an increase,” said Bill Barber, a CWA employee.
Average water rates range from $35.15 to $41.70 for current CWA customers, depending on what sector they live in, as opposed to $65.20 for Aqua America customers.
“I don’t want the rates to triple and the quality of the water isn’t the same either. I’m here as a ratepayer and not as an employee,” said Joe Stafford, another CWA employee.
In May, the CWA board unanimously rejected a $250 million unsolicited acquisition offer from Aqua America after receiving the proposal May 8.
Aqua President Marc Lucca explained his approach to the board and Aqua’s interest at the meeting. Lucca said that if an Aqua acquisition takes place, the company would freeze the CWA rates for 10 years and all CWA employees would be given employment.
“It came to the board’s attention there were government agencies and others who were having conversations about the future of the CWA that could lead to a liquidation of the authority,” said CWA Solicitor Francis Catania. “I was at a meeting with members of the Chester Stormwater Authority discussing common interests in August. Steven Mullin, the Act 47 coordinator, indicated that one of the items he was discussing was to terminate the authority. I was taken aback by the comment. It was not by anyone by the city. I didn’t think it was a nice comment. I recommended to board leadership to have our special council file a Right to Know (RTK) request to the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).”
The RTN request sought information about 20 areas looking at communications between the DCED or the Act 47 coordinators where the future of the CWA was being discussed by future investor-owned utilities.
Catania did not hide his displeasure over the heavily redacted documents CWA received.
“We don’t know why the DCED redacted those things. I believe it is incumbent upon us to find out what those conversations were,” Catania said.
After returning from executive session, the board voted to allow Catania to evaluate the necessity of taking legal action against the state due to the heavily redacted RTK documents from the DCED.
Kirkland addressed the overflow crowd, many who questioned his choice of words in the letter which included stating the city has, “the right to dissolve the authority.”
“I sent (you) the letter to begin to build a bridge of communication,” Kirkland said to Leitzell. “I’ve had numerous fruitful conversations with Catania regarding the CWA. In our conversations, we have never talked, and I have never mentioned, about the selling of the CWA.”
He then asked Catania to confer.
“In our conversations both public and private you have never once talked about terminating or selling the Authority or anything in those regards. We have always talked about seeing if we can come up with mutually beneficial solutions,” said Catania.
“Read the letter for yourselves,” Kirkland said offering copies. “I never said sell the Authority. We have been working together to come to an agreeable solution that works for everybody. We are under Act 47 and they will make certain recommendations they think will be helpful of us to exit Act 47. Many of the recommendations they have made have been helpful. Some we discarded such as close the firehouse, lay off firefighters and police officers. I just wanted to come here to set the record straight. This administration has never said we were going to sell the Authority.”
When asked by a resident during public comment how he is writing a letter pertaining to the “dissolving” of the Authority, Kirkland answered: “If we don’t exit Act 47 in three years the city goes into receivership. Act 47 members will move swiftly to deal with our assets. That’s why Catania and I have been working closely to try to come to a resolution that is helpful. That letter shares history, factual information and a willingness to work together.”
Public comment was contemptuous as residents had questions about future possibilities of a switch to Aqua and Act 47.
“This is all coming to pass because Chester is in such a deficit situation,” said Catherine Mohler-Gradski. “This isn’t just about 2015 and not getting the reports…isn’t there other things you guys could have done in the decades (before) to handle this? It’s going to come to pass because the people that have been in charge have done it inadequately. Now Aston’s going to have to pay for your inadequacies. Brookhaven’s going to have to pay for your inadequacies …”
The next CWA meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 21st at 2 p.m. It is tentatively planned to be held at Neumann University.