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Towamencin Residents Claim Victory in Vote Against Sewer Sale

Residents of a Montgomery County town are claiming victory in a vote to revise their township status and institute “home rule.” It is a measure driven by a bid to prevent the controversial sale of its municipal sewer system.

Unofficial election results released Wednesday show Towamencin Township residents voted in favor of the “home rule charter ballot question,” which will revise Towamencin’s second-class township code and institute the “home rule” charter in question.

The vote was 2,728 in favor and 2,418 against.

Longtime resident Kofi Osei told DVJournal the charter vote came about after the Towamencin Board of Supervisors voted to sell the town’s sewer system to NextEra Energy in May 2022. Residents revolted against the proposal, he said, leading to a major citizen’s commission and Tuesday’s proposal that effectively revokes the town’s sale of the utility.

“We feel pretty comfortable with the lead with 100 percent of precincts reporting,” Osei said Wednesday. “Some provisional and military [ballots are] left, but it should be impossible for those to cover the gap.”

“Next in Towamencin is making sure that the Board of Supervisors follow the charter and exit the contract that they are no longer able to complete,” he said. He added citizens across Pennsylvania will “keep monitoring these sales ..and offer advice to communities that want to fight this.”

Following the proposed sale, Osei said that outraged residents “successfully collected enough signatures to initiate a government study commission question and election that appeared on the November 2022 general election ballot.” The ballot question passed, with members of NOPE winning all seven seats on the commission.

Following public meetings, a draft report from the commission recommended the home rule charter’s inclusion on Tuesday’s primary ballot. The home rule charter will “prohibit the sale or long-term lease of potable water, wastewater, and stormwater systems to nongovernmental entities,” according to the commission’s report. It will also modify local transparency rules and referendum procedures.

Osei said throughout the controversy, the town board of supervisors transferred the sewer asset purchase agreement from NextEra to American Water.

Kara Rahn, a spokeswoman for American Water, did not respond to a query about the vote on Wednesday. Rahn earlier confirmed the company “agreed to assume the obligations under the Towamencin asset purchase agreement on March 23, 2023, after the Board of Supervisors’ public vote on the matter.” The sale was valued at $104 million.

“We do not have any comment on the ballot initiative seeking to change the township’s form of government in the future,” Rahn said.

Towamencin residents for months protested against the proposed sale, one of many transfers of public water systems to private controllers in Pennsylvania in recent years.

Among concerns that drove the backlash to the sewer sale, the commission found the transfer “could cost Towamencin ratepayers about $9 million or more every year in sewer rates in excess of operation and maintenance.”

“That would dwarf the stated $3.5 million a year benefit of having a one-time cash infusion,” the report said, also claiming that “investor-owned wastewater utilities consistently charge double to triple rates as well as having more harsh rate hikes than municipally owned systems.”

Though the charter will outlaw the sale of the water system to private companies, the commission suggested that the new charter still “allow for a lease with a non-governmental entity,” albeit only “for a period of no longer than two years.”

Osei previously told DVJournal that he got involved with the NOPE effort “first and foremost because Towamencin is where I grew up, and I did not want to see my friends and family sold out to some big utility company.”

“The more I read about water/sewer privatization, and specifically the ‘fair market’ valuation method Pennsylvania uses, the less I thought it was a good idea and wanted to make sure the people of Towamencin knew what was going on before they eventually get the bill a few years later,” he said.

Pennsylvania has recently seen a frenzy of sewer system buyouts by private groups. The state legislature in 2016 passed the controversial Act 12, which modified the state’s rules for the valuation and purchase of municipal water systems, allowing private concerns to buy more of them.

Osei said the main purpose of the home rule question on Tuesday’s ballot was to end any talks of selling the township’s sewer system.

“The primary goal of passing this charter is to stop the sewer sale and any future attempted sale,” he said.

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