It’s not personal, it’s just business.
That’s the message Noel Brandon, the new chair of the Chester Water Authority (CWA) Board, has for the City of Chester and the state-appointed Receiver overseeing its finances. They have been trying to make the CWA’s assets part of their solution for the city’s slow-rolling financial disaster. And given the authority’s value, Brandon understands why.
He’s just determined to stop them.
Asked about the relationship between the CWA and the Receiver’s office, Brandon told DVJournal he wouldn’t call it “adversarial,” despite their clashes in court.
“We don’t have any personal disagreements. Our goals are just at odds. Their job is to solve the city’s problems. Our job [on the board] is to protect the ratepayers,” Brandon said.
“And most of those 200,000 ratepayers don’t live in the city,” Brandon notes. The CWA provides water across the region and, in the board’s view, the service belongs to the ratepayers.
Chester has argued control of the authority belongs to the city that created it in 1939. Given the city has operated at a deficit for decades, the city and Receiver Michael Doweary have made it clear they would like the CWA to be part of a solution to Chester’s cash crunch. In May, Doweary’s chief of staff, Vijay Kapoor, delivered a presentation painting a target on the CWA’s back.
“Truly, the only realistic way for Chester to be able to deposit that amount of money that it needs in its pension funds to have an affordable pension payment is to monetize the Chester Water Authority,” Kapoor said.
And the city has a willing buyer, Aqua America, standing in the wings with a $410 million purchase offer.
In November, the city filed for bankruptcy under an agreement that the authority is not part of the deal. But Brandon believes the target is still there.
“We thought that [the bankruptcy filing] was the end of it. But unfortunately, because we have a very, very valuable asset, they continue to pursue it, through whatever means necessary,” Brandon said.
And just last month, Kapoor repeated that “the receiver’s position that a monetization must happen — but he is open to it remaining in public hands — remains the same.”
Brandon made his comments the day after the CWA’s new board had its first full meeting, with representatives selected by Chester and Delaware Counties, and the City of Chester. Another new member, Nicole Whittaker of Upper Chichester, said she felt for the city’s unfortunate situation (“The oldest city in Pennsylvania, it’s a shame”) but disagreed with the Receiver’s strategy.
“‘The city is in desperate need, they have limited resources, and now this big company [Aqua] wants to add this resource to their portfolio. You have a well-run facility with award-winning water that’s not in distress, and you’re going after them?” Whittaker said. “I’m not sure the Receiver knows what he’s doing, quite frankly.”
The authority has previously offered to contribute $60 million to the city. But Brandon and Whittaker asked why Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and the state, which currently has a large revenue surplus, haven’t done more.
Whittaker urged residents who don’t want the authority sold to make their voices heard, particularly in Harrisburg. “They need to call their state representatives and Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon. And they need to call [Gov.-elect] Josh Shapiro, to flood his office with calls and emails telling him not to allow the sale of Chester Water.”
Brandon said the battle should be viewed not as a fight between the board and the city but between the ratepayers and the people who want Aqua to have the asset.
“I think we have our ratepayers’ best interests at heart,” Brandon said. “And we’re doing everything we can to protect them and to protect the valuable asset that they have and that they want to retain.
“On the other side, they have a need as well, and they’re doing whatever they can to take something I don’t believe is rightfully theirs.”