$1.1 Billion Sewer System Sale Off

Gregory Vellner

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The proposed $1.1 billion sale of Bucks County, Pa.’s sewer system apparently has been flushed away following public outcry against a plan that would have been the largest privatization ever in the U.S of a wastewater system.

The Bucks County commissioners recently ended talks to sell the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority (BCWSA) sewer system to Aqua Pennsylvania Inc. after an outpouring of public opposition to the proposal seen by many as audacious.

For its part, Aqua said it is “surprised and disappointed” by the action.

The decision by the three commissioners – they do not have a direct vote on whether a sale should take place – happened the day before a rally had been planned by opponents. An independent entity that has the power to sell the system, BCWSA currently serves about 100,000 households in the Philadelphia suburban counties of Bucks, Montgomery and Chester.

“While I see much potential in adding an estimated billion dollars to the county treasury, I cannot say that I feel comfortable with this transaction,” said Bob Harvie, chairman, board of supervisors. “I did speak with the chair of the authority to ask that he and the rest of the board stop any negotiations and not sell any part of the BCWSA operations. I believe the board of the BCWSA will do what is necessary to end discussions with Aqua”

Said Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia: “I cannot recommend that BCSWA continue to entertain Aqua Inc.’s proposal. While the financial aspects of this deal is a reasonable… do not sell off the publicly-run BCWSA sewer system to a private entity.”

Proponents of the sale said the huge influx of funds to the county could reduce debt and fund improvements without a tax increase. It also could have allow BCWSA to rid itself of a need to spend millions of dollars to improve its aging system, they argued.

But opponents said the deal was a back-door tax increase that would burden wastewater customs with escalating sewer bills in perpetuity, while giving up control of a major public asset.

“Fear of ballooning rates, as evidenced by similar takeovers around the country, and loss of a well-managed, highly-regarded independent public utility topped the feedback I have received,” said Marseglia. “Granted, the commissioners do not have the power to approve or deny any such sale – that responsibility rests with the authority.”

Under Aqua’s proposal, current sewer rates would be frozen for one year but would eventually be increased to match Aqua’s rates, now about $88 compared with BCWSA’s average monthly rate of $48. The exact figure, however, is unclear, said proponents.

The BCWSA in July announced it was negotiating for the saleofthe sewer system and had received a $1.1 billion offer from Aqua.

Following the Bucks action, Christopher Franklin, chairman and CEO of Essential Utilities, Aqua’s parent company, said he was “surprised and disappointed.”

“While we were surprised and disappointed by the sudden turn of events, we respect the opinions of the Bucks County elected officials,” he said.

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As a professional journalist for several years -- reporter, editor, feature writer, columnist -- I handled a range of subjects. Breaking news, investigative series, government action, feature events, and staff feature writer with national entertainment magazine interviewing stars including Tom Selleck, Mel Brooks and Danny DeVito. No matter the topic, certain ingredients are key: truth, facts, objectivity, balance.

Bucks County, PA
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