Where I part ways with the Allentown water lease opponents is that I think consolidating Allentown’s water infrastructure within Lehigh County Authority is actually the first-best option, not second-best.
RenewLV has been advocating for years to consolidate all the region’s water authorities, either under a single Lehigh Valley water authority, or two county authorities. There are two main benefits of doing this. A peer-reviewed study commissioned by RenewLV found that consolidating all the water authorities would save the region between $40-60 million annually. The other is that decisions about whether to extend new water infrastructure out into cornfields to build new exurban sprawl would become regional decisions, not municipal decisions.
LCA leasing Allentown’s water and sewer system is less ideal than an outright sale, but the pension situation complicates things.
RenewLV laid out their position on this today, and I think it’s dead-on:
In concert with its focus on regional cooperation and revitalization of the Lehigh Valley’s core urban communities, Renew Lehigh Valley is calling for the continuation of local control over the City of Allentown’s water infrastructure assets should the city decide to lease its system.
The city is evaluating proposals for a 50-year lease of its water system to generate a lump-sum payment that would be used to offset pension obligations. If Allentown does not address expanding minimum pension obligation, the city administration has argued that the liability would constrain the city’s operating budget and keep it from delivering the breadth of services required to keep Allentown safe, clean, and attractive.
Although the situation is complex, RenewLV offers the following positions consistent with its core beliefs:
- Allentown must remain financially solvent. RenewLV urges the Commonwealth and the City (along with all units of government) to find a long-term solution to their pension obligations soon to prevent a radical reduction in services that could accelerate the decline of our vital urban cores.
- RenewLV has advocated for the consolidation of water and wastewater systems for the past six years. Our region’s current assortment of more than three dozen different water and wastewater entities is inefficient and unsustainable over the long term.
- The lease of Allentown’s water system to a private corporation for 50 years effectively takes the largest water and wastewater system off the table for the discussion of regional consolidation. Therefore, RenewLV urges the city to strongly consider a proposal from Lehigh County Authority or another local public authority. Furthermore, RenewLV urges LCA or another public authority in the region to offer a competitive price to the city, thus acting in the greater public interest during this pivotal time. The other option that should continue to be evaluated is the feasibility of establishing a new Allentown Authority that could also keep control of water resources in the public’s hands.Lehigh County residents not living in Allentown have much at stake in this proposal. For example, if this situation is not carefully managed, future job-creating development in the county will be seriously threatened due to limited capacity of the existing system. RenewLV believes that functional consolidation could result in regional economies of scale and more sustainable economic development throughout the watershed. It is RenewLV’s belief that public control and oversight will better accommodate a watershed-centric approach to our water resources.
- We urge the Commonwealth to provide incentives for the functional consolidation of water and wastewater systems, especially considering that other municipalities may be in the same fiscal situation as Allentown and may seek lease agreements with private, rather than public, entities.
The City of Allentown and Lehigh County, together, have a great deal to lose if the water system is leased to a private entity. We encourage the city to favor proposals that maintain local, public control over the water and wastewater operations and maintain influence over future expansion of the system.
Since its genesis, Renew Lehigh Valley (RenewLV) has advocated for strengthening the region’s urban communities and for identifying opportunities for regional collaboration and consolidation to reduce the fragmentation of local government and government functions. These two philosophies remain central to our core beliefs.
In 2009, RenewLV’s governing bodies approved a visioning statement that provided a foundation for an ongoing water/wastewater initiative: “The Lehigh Valley will establish a regional approach to managing water resources and services as a means of: ensuring affordable, reliable, and efficient water services; promoting public health; and preserving water resources.” Renew Lehigh Valley sought to mobilize community support for regional collaboration on water/wastewater infrastructure because it was critical to both promoting long-term cost efficiency and fostering more sustainable patterns of growth. The Regional Water Initiative was consistent with our larger mission of catalyzing regional collaboration and smart growth in the Lehigh Valley. RenewLV remains consistent in its efforts toward regional collaboration focusing once again on water/wastewater infrastructure, specifically in the City of Allentown.
Through a 2008 peer-reviewed study commissioned by RenewLV, in partnership with the AWWA Research Foundation, significant financial benefits were found to be realized in the future through regional approaches to water/wastewater infrastructure. At a RenewLV news conference in 2009, then-Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell also threw his support behind the study’s findings and efforts reinforcing the need to modernize in order to meet demand as it grows and infrastructure ages.