Pittsburgh controller cautions against privatization of PWSA

By Megan Guza

Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb on Thursday applauded the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority’s steady improvements under the control of the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission and warned against calls to privatize the water authority.

Peoples Natural Gas has proposed creating Peoples Water and developing a public-private partnership with PWSA.

Lamb said improvements at the water authority could have happened without PUC oversight but didn’t.

“Their oversight has brought a new focus to finance and customer service and to long-term planning, and it’s forced the PWSA to set ambitious but achievable goals,” Lamb said during a press conference. “I didn’t expect this, but the PUC oversight has set the PWSA on the course toward becoming a much more effective and efficient organization.”

He said the authority’s expanding online communications and customer service efforts, as well as an increased number of capital projects.

“They’ve done significant steps in lead line replacement this year and last year, so they’re getting there as well,” he said regarding water quality. “They’re not there yet, but they’re getting there.”

State lawmakers in 2017 passed legislation that placed the authority under PUC control in an effort to address PWSA’s chronic problems.

Lamb said talks of privatization are “misguided and premature,” and he tried to dispel what he called myths surrounding the push to privatize.

The first is the idea that PWSA’s debt problems will inhibit investment and improvement – the idea that the authority has so much debt that they cannot take on any more.

“That’s just a false statement,” Lamb said, noting that the authority’s credit rating is actually better than the city’s.

He also said the idea that a private water service is going to be established, “so we might as well just invite them in and work with them,” is a false narrative.

“It’s not an accurate description of what’s going on,” he said.

Lamb’s comments come a week after three water and sewer experts similarly urged city council to be cautious in considering privatization and private-public partnerships.

“When it comes right down to it there are only two ways that a private company can make a profit running a public service: raising prices or cutting costs,” said Bill Henry, a Baltimore city councilman, told council members last week. “Raising prices is raising the cost of water to your constituents, while cutting costs means either reducing worker pay and benefits or reducing services, the brunt of which usually falls on low-income and communities of color.