Consulting firm delivers initial review of challenges facing the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority

Consulting firm delivers initial review of challenges facing the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority

Author: Alanna Koll/Tuesday, August 29, 2017/Categories: Pittsburgh

The consulting firm hired to investigate the issues facing the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which it described as “a failed organization atop a dangerous and crumbling structure,” outlined several options for city leaders to consider Monday as they look to try and rework the authority.

Infrastructure Management Group (IMG), hired by PWSA and Pittsburgh City Council earlier this year, gave the first of three presentations as it leads an organizational review at the authority.

IMG Chairman Steve Steckler outlined potential restructuring options for the authority and offered the firm’s initial observations about the issues facing PWSA before a Blue-Ribbon Panel of experts appointed by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

PWSA is tackling a list of problems including a nine-figure debt load, failing infrastructure, leadership turnover, shoddy customer service, and lead-contaminated drinking water being supplied to some customers.

“What is needed is a holistic vision of how the utility will be improved,” Steckler told the panel. “Everyone has to buy in, because it’s going to be expensive. It’s going to be hard.”

He started his presentation with outlining eight potential restructuring options to save the water authority, including: transferring the authority to a private non-profit utility, a local regulated investor-owned utility, or an existing regional government entity such as the PUC; conducting aggressive internal improvements; outsourcing selected services; making short-term improvements; contracting-out operations and maintenance; or making a concession lease.

“The restructuring options for PWSA range from modest to extensive, and from public to private. It is fair to assume that each has their unique advantages and disadvantages for Pittsburgh’s water and sewer ratepayers,” reads the summary of the options given to the panel.

Steckler noted that about 20 percent of PWSA’s 250 employees are on short-term disability, and employees were absent for significant periods from a control system used to monitor water treatment and employees present at work had limited knowledge of how to manage the system.

“We observed that there is an entrenched culture of operational apathy,” said Steckler. “Staff is either underutilized or overwhelmed by the urgency of what they are asked to do.”

He also added that the majority of the rotating equipment at the water plant exhibited evidence of significant neglect and pump seals were leaking and could have been fixed with the tightening of bolts.

“The equipment that is there is old, in a difficult state of repair…and are not being operated properly,” he said.

PWSA’s interim executive director Robert Weimar said the authority is aware of the all the issues addressed and has been continuing to make slow improvements.

“We definitely do not have the types of resources to really do performance metrics, which we are heading toward, but in order for us to do that, we need to make sure on a daily basis that we deliver the water under state and federal regulations and do so at a reasonable cost,” said Weimer. “All the items mentioned, we know. We’re dealing with it. But we can only deal with it at a rate that our available funds allow.”

IMG estimates it will cost billions of dollars to fix all of PWSA’s problems. Mayor Peduto estimated earlier this year that it would take $4billion to $5 billion.

“We’re not running from these problems any longer,” said Mayor Peduto. “This work by IMG, with support by the PWSA board, City Council and the Blue-Ribbon Panel will find the solutions the public deserves. We are far from finding the right solution for Pittsburgh but today marks an important first step.”

IMG will hold another public session on September 12 and November 8 to examine PWSA’s finances and operations more deeply.