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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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Residents Weigh In on DELCORA Sale

State Sen. John Kane (D-Chester/Delaware) joined a telephone public hearing Thursday to share his views on the proposed $276.5 million deal for Aqua PA to buy DELCORA. He opposed the plan and, if Thursday’s hearing is any indication, he is far from alone.

“I’m here today to relay a message delivered to me loudly and clearly. The people in the 9th District as a whole do not support the private takeover of public utilities,” he said, noting that goes for Republicans, Democrats, and independents. “All agree public utilities belong in public hands.”

Kane said people believe Aqua will increase their sewer and water bills.

“This would be a slap in the face to the people of Delaware County,” said Kane.

During Thursday’s hearing, person after person urged Administrative Law Judge F. Joseph Brady to say no to the proposed sale of DELCORA (Delaware County Regional Water Control Authority). The proposal, which extends back to the previous GOP-controlled Delaware County Council and had been rejected by the current Democratic majority, has been at the center of political controversy from the beginning.

Citizens and ratepayers had their chance to speak, and they were nearly universally in opposition.

Swarthmore resident Christopher DeBruyn said he has studied the issue in depth.

“I’m protesting as a private citizen,” said DeBruyn. “The sale is “strongly against the long-term interests of DELCORA ratepayers.” But “massive rate increases are coming no matter who owns the system,” he said.

Ross Schmucki, also of Swarthmore, a former councilman who chaired the public works committee, said he had read the trust document. Newspaper articles about it were “misleading,” he said.

He noted that a trust Aqua had offered to set up would be based in Delaware and the $200 million that would be put into the trust would flow to Aqua itself, not to customers to defray rate hikes as promised.

“That $200 million is no substitute for full rate stabilization,” he said. “The trust by its terms says it will be non-responsive to anybody (according to the) memorandum of understanding.”

Cynthia Ziegler of Downingtown said she is already an Aqua customer, and her rates are much higher than promised.

“Whenever Aqua purchases a place, our rates go up,” she said. “I, too, am opposed to their purchase of DELCORA…This is so unfair and obscene. We’ve been paying these rate increases for years.”

“The sale does not promote the public good,” said Peter Mrozinski of Landenberg. The towns of New Garden, Willistown, and East Whiteland sold their public sewer systems to Aqua with the PUC’s approval even though an administrative law judge recommended against it, he said. New Garden saw an 80 percent increase in sewer rates. The PUC members ruled for the sale because they believe the state legislature favored consolidation, Mrozinski said. But DECORA is already a regional authority with 500,000 customers serving 46 municipalities.

“A monopoly is never in the public interest,” he said.

Vijay Kapoor, a representative of the City of Chester Receiver, tried to testify to tell Brady that Chester was not in bankruptcy, but Brady said that he was taking testimony from individual customers, not government entities. He suggested that Kapoor file a motion.

Stephani Perez, a Chester resident, said, “I am protesting. I am against Aqua.”

“It would be a great hardship to the residents of Chester. If the rates continue to go up, we won’t be able to afford water…Many residents will be pushed out of the city if they can’t afford the water.”

Kearni Warren, who ran as a Green Party candidate for Chester city council, was also opposed to the sale.

“Put people over profits,” she said. Aqua is also trying to buy the Chester Water Authority, she added. “I feel their actions are based on greed. A public bidding process wasn’t held.” She said that she had received a “deceptive” mailing from Aqua.

Radnor resident George Badey, a lawyer, also opposed the DELCORA sale.

He noted he is a DELCORA customer but through a municipal system. And any promised rate savings would not necessarily go to the residents but might be used by municipalities for other needs.

“I strongly oppose the sale,” said Badey. “It’s not fair to ratepayers.”

Judge Brady said he expects to give a recommendation to the PUC in late April or early May 2023.

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