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Chester Water Authority Scores Win in Federal Bankruptcy Court

The Chester Water Authority (CWA) and Chester County chalked up a win in its ongoing legal battle with the Receiver for the City of Chester.

The bankruptcy court judge handling the bankruptcy case filed by Receiver Michael Doweary on behalf of the City of Chester ruled on Nov. 23 the CWA is not part of another case bought by the receiver pending in Commonwealth Court.

In the ruling by Judge Ashely M. Chan, the receiver agreed the word “authority” in the Commonwealth Court amended recovery plan does not include the CWA.

Chan stayed the CWA’s case that was to be heard by the state Supreme Court on Nov. 30. But motions to permit the high court to hear the case were filed and will be heard mid-December.

“We believe the state Supreme Court should be the one to decide it,” said CWA lawyer Frank Catania. CWA is fighting for survival against the state-appointed Receiver’s attempts to sell it to Aqua PA. And even if he succeeded, Catania said, “it is an undecided — and vigorously disputed — as to what money, if any, the city would get from a sale of CWA.”

The city of Chester has a long history of financial turmoil stretching back 27 years. During that time, it has been under the financial authority of four receivership regimes authorized by the Pennsylvania Municipalities Financial Recovery Act of 1987.

“Since 2017, the City of Chester has attempted to monetize the assets of the CWA, an authority that services more than 200,000 ratepayers, the vast majority of whom reside outside the boundaries of the City, including more than 34,000 ratepayers residing in Chester County where critical infrastructure is also located,” Delaware County argued in a legal filing. CWA supporters believe the Receiver had his eye on the authority and his requests to the courts reveal his intentions.

The receiver had “asked the court for permission to take over and run any authority that the City of Chester created. That’s all it said. It didn’t say, ‘not us [CWA],'” said Catania “So clearly we were concerned. If the judge gave a broad interpretation of the language, that would include us, and the Receiver has no business trying to run a water company, right?”

Opposition to Chester’s attempts to sell the CWA to Aqua PA is bipartisan in the Delaware Valley. In addition to Democratic opponents on the county council, two GOP state reps previously filed an amicus brief last month to oppose the sale.

“Act 73 of 2012 abolished Chester city’s control over the CWA board. It is outrageous to suggest that years later, the city can override the clear intent of the Legislature, take control of CWA, and sell it to the highest bidder. I am grateful that the Supreme Court has agreed to review this matter, and I will continue to fight to prevent any takeover of Chester Water Authority,” said Rep. John Lawrence (R-West Grove).

Lawrence, whose constituents in Chester and Delaware counties are served by CWA filed the brief with House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster).

“The CWA board has steadfastly and responsibly served the hundreds of thousands of customers who rely on this municipally provided service,” Cutler said. “The Commonwealth Court’s ruling undermines the board’s rightful position to continue to recognize the best interest of its customers and sets a dangerous precedent for all water consumers in the Commonwealth. We strongly urge the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to take a closer look at this case.”

And the state Supreme Court is where CWA supporters want this case heard, while the Receiver has tried to get the Commonwealth Courts to make the decision.

“Doweary would rather have the issue heard before a single judge in a different case where the Chester Water Authority is not a party. That’s what he was trying to do. Then the next step in his plot—a hostile takeover– was on the day before Veteran’s Day. That’s when the city filed for bankruptcy, with no prior warning.”

“The Receiver has a nasty habit of trying to pull holiday surprises,” Catania added. “So we’re always on a heightened state of readiness around the holidays.”

“He failed, but he’ll try again,” said Catania.

The receiver did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

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‘A Robbery in Progress:’ Chester Water Cries Foul Over Receiver’s Bankruptcy Move

When Receiver Michael T. Doweary filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy last Thursday for the City of Chester, he said it was the only way to resolve the city’s ongoing fiscal crisis.

“Chester’s financial and operational problems are far worse than my team of professionals has ever encountered. The status quo has not worked, is not working, and will not work. The residents of Chester deserve better,” Doweary said in a press release. He pointed to a projected $46.5 million deficit in 2023, including $39.8 million in past-due pension payments.

But representatives for the Chester Water Authority (CWA), locked in a struggle against the city’s bid to sell the CWA to Aqua PA, it was just the latest misstep by the city’s state-appointed overseer. And it leaves far too many unanswered questions.

“The Receiver has had two and half years to turn Chester around,” said CWA attorney Frank Catania, pointing to several high-profile fiascos like the city losing $400,000 through an internet phishing scam on the Receiver’s watch.

And, Catania added, Doweary did not tell the Commonwealth Court that Chester stands to gain $70 million through the sale of DELCORA (Delaware County Regional Water Quality Control Authority) to Aqua or, alternatively, get its sewer systems back so it could sell them itself.

“It’s a robbery in progress,” said Catania of Doweary’s revised Receivership document. Doweary is “trying to shift the burden (of paying for water and sewer) from government to citizens,” both in Chester and in parts of Delaware and Chester counties. Some 80 percent of CWA customers are suburban and if Doweary has his way, those customers will subsidize the city.”

“The Receiver uses bank robber’s logic: I need money. You have money. I’m taking it.”

Doweary declined to respond to repeated requests for comment. In a press release, he said he avoided bankruptcy as long as possible, and he pointed fingers at city officials.

“Since my appointment over two-and-a-half years ago, I have worked to avoid this day,” Doweary said. “However, Chester has a severe structural deficit that cannot be addressed by one-time fixes, has unaffordable retiree benefit liabilities, and cannot reliably provide vital and necessary services to its residents.”

According to Doweary, Chester’s elected officials and employees are not cooperating with his stewardship. For example, Councilman William Morgan lost the money to the phishing scam — involving a fake request for payment — in June, but he was not notified until three months later. He also pointed to a $750,000 IRS penalty against Chester for incorrect payroll taxes and to a salary being paid to an incarcerated former employee.

Doweary acknowledges he is seeking more control over city operations and also wants the court to award him control over the CWA. He also asked the court to tell employees and elected officials that they must not interfere with the directives of the chief operating officer or the Receiver.

What the Receiver won’t discuss, however, is the city’s outstanding debt for the high-powered law firm, Greenberg Traurig, for a $1 million contingency fee. How could Chester, struggling to pay its bills, afford to pay $1 million?

DVJournal has requested the underlying documents related to retaining Greenburg Traurig, but the Receiver has declined to provide them or explain what work the firm was supposed to provide to the taxpayers of Chester.

CWA is in litigation with the Receiver. Oral arguments in that case are scheduled before the state Supreme Court on Nov. 30.  However, a bankruptcy filing stays other court cases. Lawyers are meeting with a bankruptcy court on Tuesday.  Also, at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, the Municipal Financial Recover Advisory Committee will meet. That meeting will be streamed. 

“[Doweary] is court shopping,” said Catania. “He wants to avoid the Supreme Court and go to Commonwealth Court.”

“He’s going to try to convince (the Commonwealth Court) judge that he should be in charge of CWA,” added Catania.  “He couldn’t even make sure the city that Chester had proper insurance coverage and he wants to sell the water authority and serve 200,000 customers fresh drinking water? It’s outrageous. He’s got to be stopped. He did not tell the court the whole story that Chester stands to get $70 million from the sale of DELCORA.”

Instead of a Receiver, the state should step up for Chester, like it previously did Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg, said Catania.

“This is an orchestrated crisis,” said Catania. “And whenever it’s convenient, Doweary brings the city retirees out for public relations purposes.

“He treated Chester retirees as hostages,” he said.

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