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Allentown residents voice concerns over water system lease

By Catherine Hawley, Reporter, @CatherineH_WFMZ, chawley@wfmz.com
Published On: Sep 28 2012 04:53:12 PM CDT

Allentown's mayor said he expects to get the green light soon to start the bidding process on a controversial water system lease.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Allentown's mayor said he expects to get the green light soon to start the bidding process on a controversial water system lease, but a number of city residents want him to slow down.

The city of Allentown said it's not a perfect option, but it's the best one it has: Leasing the sewer and water systems for 50 years to pay off unfunded employee pensions.

City leaders said renting the water and sewer systems to a private company could dump more than $200 million into Allentown's struggling pensions.  By 2015, the pensions are expected to cost $23 million a year.

"This is the best option and gives us the best benefit and the longest long term fix," explained Mayor Ed Pawlowski, D-Allentown.

About 85 people turned out to a four-hour public meeting Thursday night, hosted by city council.

"Guaranteed, no company is going to come in here and give us $158 million, and we're not going to pay anything in return."

Consultants reviewed multiple options the city's considered to fix the pension problem.  One scenario was a tax increase of about $308 per person.

Some residents said they still feel they're being left in the dark.

"It's not really in here. The numbers aren't there. This is a filtered version of what they want us to see."

Others in the crowd were concerned about health issues, the water being sold to a fracking company, and rates skyrocketing.

"I have no doubt that even if we go into a lease scenario there will be rate increases," said Pawlowski. "But those rate increases will be kept in check based on the parameters that we're putting into that lease."

One group even called to let the public decide whether to lease the systems.

"Put it on the ballot you can do it, you have the power to do that, let the people vote on this natural resource."

Pawlowski said he expects council to approve the bidding process by mid-October.