If approved, the sale of Bucks County’s sewer system to Aqua Pennsylvania for $1.1 billion would be the largest privatization of a public wastewater system in the country.
News of the deal to give Aqua a one-year exclusive right to negotiate the sale of Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority’s sewer system surprised many when it became public knowledge in April after months of behind the scenes discussions.
A July 13 BCWSA meeting, where a vote on the potentially transformational matter was planned, was hurriedly added to the agenda at the last minute.
The five-member BCWSA board voted 3-1 to approve the process. Board Chairman John F. Cordisco did not attend the meeting. The sole no vote came from Dennis Cowley, who was board chairman in 2020 when Aqua first approached the authority.
Reaction to the potential sale has prompted a growing number of BCWSA’s some 75,000 customers as well as employees and several municipalities, to call for rejection of the agreement, citing concerns over rate hikes, repairs and accountability.
Rate increases could be frozen for a year, but then would likely rise from a monthly average of $48 to Aqua’s current $88 fee.
In a recent letter to the BCWSA and the county commissioners, Doylestown Township supervisors said, “The sale of water and/or sewer utilities to a private entity like Aqua has been proven to lead to skyrocketing rates and fees. Local municipalities have limited to no influence or resource in preventing these rates and fees from drastically increasing,” officials wrote, adding, they, along with other communities, such as Solebury Township, want to send a “clear message to the BCWSA board members and the Bucks County Commissioners that we respectfully, yet strongly, oppose any sale of BCWSA’s water or sewer utilities to any private entity, including, but not limited to, Aqua.”
The Bucks County Association of Township Officials also sent a letter to the county commissioners opposing the sale.
A BCWSA website page – BCWSAcommitment.org – said, it was their “fiduciary responsibility” to examine Aqua PA’s offer, which they said was unsolicited, and “make the most beneficial decision for all concerned.”
Highlighted in the statement, were assurances that consumers’ rates would be protected, taxpayers would see financial benefits, environmental protections would continue and employees’ current pay and benefits would not “be negatively impacted.”
The board chair noted in the letter that “along with creating a fund for customers, the county can allocate the money for needs that it deems appropriate, such as eliminating its debt, freezing any tax increases over an extended period of time, and other essential needs to benefit residents.”
Cordisco, an attorney, was the longtime chairman of the Bucks County Democratic Committee. He stepped down earlier this year.
Net proceeds from the sale, estimated to be about $1 billion after the authority’s wastewater system debt is paid off, would equal approximately five times Bucks County’s annual tax revenue.
The deal is for the authority’s sewer system, which represents about three-quarters of its assets. BCWSA will continue to operate its water system.
Bucks County Commissioners offered no new comment on the matter and reiterated an earlier statement when asked about the proposed sale. “Our original statement from April remains true: The Bucks County Board of Commissioners would not receive a request to approve an agreement of this kind unless first independently approved by the BCWSA.”
The county has the ability to dissolve the municipal authority.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission will have the final say on the sale, as well as rate hikes, which it historically approves.
Aqua Pennsylvania is a subsidiary of Essential Utilities, Inc. based in Bryn Mawr.