Limerick Township residents are dealing with a potential case of sticker shock.
People anticipated their sewer rates would rise in 2022–but not by 90 percent. Aqua Pennsylvania, which has owned the system since 2018, applied to the Pennsylvania PUC for a $97.7 million rate increase last month to make upgrades to its water and sewer systems across the commonwealth. They are asking to recover $1.1 billion in capital investment in waster and wastewater systems over time.
In its application, the company indicated that, if approved in its entirety, the average residential customer would see their water bill increase by 11.97 per month, from $69.35 to $81.32 an increase of roughly 15 percent. The average residential wastewater bill for Aqua Pennsylvania’s residential customers would increase from $55.51 to $73.95.
But Limerick Township residents have received letters from Aqua America indicating they could see their sewer rates rise nearly 90 percent beginning in 2022, from $37.59 per month to $71.27 for customers using 3,800 gallons of water per month.
Commercial customers would be impacted as well. Those using 5,800 gallons of water per month would see a hike from $50.90 to $80 per month, an increase of more than 36 percent
The increase would be the first for township residents in seven years, in part because of a rate freeze that was stipulated when Aqua America purchased the sewer authority from the township (at a cost of $75.1 million); it mandated there would be no rate increases for three years.
State Rep. Joe Ciresi (D-Montgomery) represents the 146th District in western Montgomery County that includes Limerick Township and is a township resident.
“(The proposed increase) was quite eye-popping, to say the least,” he said. “(Aqua Pennsylvania) has one of the best sewer systems they ever bought and one of the most well-maintained ones.
“So, I understood we were going to have an increase. And I get 10 percent, I can do that. Fifteen percent, I don’t think it’s great, but I understand. But 90 to 100? That’s unheard of,” said Ciresi.
There is opposition to the proposed rate increase elsewhere within the township, including from the Montgomery Brook Condominium Association, which represents 396 units in 25 buildings in the township and claims its annual sewer bill would rise from $145,000 to $255,000, a 57 percent hike.
Aqua Pennsylvania President Marc Lucca notes the sewer-rate increase would amount to just over $2.30 per day. He says Aqua America and the township differed on what approach to take to system upgrades.
“The township was estimating, according to its numbers, $20-30 million of capital improvements,” he said, “over about a 10-15-year period.
“We looked at that and said ‘We think we can do it a little bit more efficiently on a 10-year plan at a cost of about $10 million. It’s closer to about $9 million,” Lucca said.
“And this would include improvements to the two wastewater treatment plants, the collection systems, and the pump stations. Most of the money was in the pump stations, which were in significant need of improvements compared to the rest of the system,” he said.
Lucca agrees the Limerick Township sewer system was well maintained when Aqua America bought it, but points out wastewater systems require significant effort to be properly maintained.
“The wastewater environment is a very aggressive environment,” he said. “So, equipment tends to degrade quicker and results in poor performance if not maintained on a regular basis or replaced.”
“We were looking at improvements to the (two) wastewater treatment plants, mostly resulting out of the need to address sludge dewatering, (and) the pump stations to move the sewage through the community to the wastewater treatment plants,” Lucca said.
Lucca also noted dollars were allocated for IT upgrades, including computer controls and cybersecurity measures.
Ciresi says Aqua America should have taken a gradual approach to the rate hikes.
“If they needed to get the rates up, they should have done it gradually over time, not on the backs of the people,” he said. “This rate increase will be equal to, if not more than, what my taxes for Limerick Township are.”
The last time Aqua Pennsylvania filed for a rate increase was in August of 2018. The company was granted a boost of $47 million, or slightly less than two-thirds of the $71.8 million it requested.
Aqua Pennsylvania spokeswoman Gretchen Toner noted there will be a series of hearings before the PUC takes a vote on the company’s most recent rate-increase request. Those hearings have yet to be scheduled and the process normally takes several months. Any increase would not take effect until the first quarter of 2022.
Aqua Pennsylvania serves 1.5 million customers in 32 Pennsylvania counties. Aqua Pennsylvania customers can learn more about the rate increase request by calling 1-877-987-2782. They can also contact the PUC in writing at PUC at Box 3265, Harrisburg, PA 17105-3265.