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Allentown water lease opponents try to build opposition in the 'burbs

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Feb 08 2013 05:52:22 AM CST
Lower Macungie Twp. commissioners
LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. -

Opponents of plans to lease Allentown’s water and sewer systems are trying to persuade municipalities surrounding the city to formally oppose the deal.

In addition to its own residents, Allentown provides water and/or sewer service to several neighboring municipalities.

The opponents, who call themselves Citizens for Allentown’s Water, want leaders of those municipalities to realize their residents will be paying higher rates if the city lease deal is approved. They have begun going to public meetings in some of those communities in an effort to build opposition.

On Thursday night, four members of the group attended the Lower Macungie Township commissioners meeting.

Dan Poresky of Allentown, spokesman for the group, called on those commissioner to “register an objection” to the city’s plan.

Poresky said Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski claims the lease will have no impact on the suburbs, but warned a fine reading of the proposed lease agreement shows “there are many opportunities within the lease for a private company to reopen contracts and add fees.”

“There is going to be harm to you,” maintained Poresky. “Our group is opposed to the privatization, including as a means of raising a couple hundred million dollars to pay off a poorly-executed pension agreement. We think you should be opposing it as well.”

He said if a company leasing the water and sewer systems gives the city $200 million, “they have to get it back. The only way to get it back is by finding ways to get more money.”

In addition to water/sewer rates almost always being much higher than private companies promise they are going to be, Poresky claimed those companies take money-saving shortcuts that often result in poorer service and even diminished water quality.

Coplay, Whitehall Township and the Coplay Whitehall Sewer Authority already have gone on record formally opposing the city’s proposed lease. Representatives of Citizens for Allentown’s Water have begun asking other municipalities that have their water or sewer service provided by Allentown to join the opposition.

Lower Macungie’s five elected commissioners did not exactly jump onto the anti-lease band wagon.

“Our main goal is to get them thinking about it,” said Poresky after the meeting. “It’s going to affect them and they should do something about it.”

After Poresky distributed information about the issue to the commissioners, Ron Eichenberg, their president, told him: “We will review your material and certainly get in touch with you if we have any questions.”

Lower Macungie resident Garrett Rhoads told commissioners he is very disturbed by Allentown’s proposed lease.

Because Lehigh County Authority purchases water from Allentown, Rhoads said “these higher rates that are going to be charged by privatization and the increases that go with them will get passed down to Lower Macungie residents” as well as those in the boroughs of Alburtis, Emmaus and Macungie.

“The mayor is trying to try to find a way to get all of us that use Lehigh County Authority for our water to pay for Allentown’s pension problem,” said Rhoads. “I think it’s imperative that the township pass some sort of resolution against this privatization of the water and to do everything in your power to prevent that from happening.”

Poresky told commissioners the city plans to send a final Request for Proposals to six potential bidders by Feb. 25. He said his understanding is they will have three weeks to respond with bids, adding Allentown City Council then will have about a month to review those responses, as well as look at alternatives.

After the meeting, Poresky said people living outside the city “don’t like Allentown’s problems spilling out to them” and that elected officials in those communities need to realize their residents will pay more if the lease is approved.

Allentown officials have argued water and sewer rates gradually will increase whether or not the systems are leased and that property taxes for city residents will increase by up to 100 percent if the 50-year-lease is not approved.

Also during Thursday’s meeting, Lower Macungie commissioners approved paying $40,100 to Descco Design & Construction to repair the wooden Church Lane Bridge, which has been closed since April.

Township Engineer William Erdman hopes the work can be completed in two or three months. He anticipates it may take four to six weeks to get approval to do that work from Norfolk Southern Railroad, whose tracks run beneath the bridge.

After the repairs are completed, the single-lane bridge will appear to be exactly the same. “Someone driving over it won’t know the difference.”

Erdman said at some point, the aging bridge will be beyond repair, but added: “We’re not there yet.” Erdman said after it is repaired the township should have a serious conversation about its future. Commissioners indicated residents feel strongly that they want the bridge. But they say it would have to be replaced with a much larger structure, which would be expensive and possibly impossible to build, because it would impact graves in a nearby cemetery.

Commissioners learned the Lower Macungie Fire Department wants them to help reduce false alarms by strengthening its law so those responsible will be fined if they have more than one false alarm in a six-month period, rather than more than three a year, and that those fines be increased.

About 30 percent of fire calls in the last four years have been false alarms, said Commissioner Roger C. Reis, who created they create safety risks and financial burdens, including volunteer firefighters leaving their jobs to respond. He said a proposed ordinance eventually will be brought to commissioners for action.

Resident David Rumpf complained about speeding on Fritch Drive. The father of two small children said safety of children is the number one priority. He’s requesting speed bumps to slow the traffic on that road, even offering to help raise money from his neighbors to make that happen. He acknowledged the township refused his initial request for speed bumps, because they interfere with snow plowing and emergency vehicles.

Township officials will ask state police to increase enforcement on Fritch Drive.
“We have this issue in every development in the township, including mine,” said Commissioner James Lancsek.

Reis said if speed bumps are put into every development, “it’s going to be like driving over a washboard every time you come through the township. That’s not something we can do.”

Rumpf’s complaint spurred a lengthy discussion about whether local police would do a better job nailing speeders than state police now do. The township is having a study done on whether it should create its own police department, with recommendations expected by June.

Commissioners approved extending the municipal waste contract with Waste Management for one year, with no increase in rates.

They also approved two zoning changes, both after hearing no comments from the public. One allows apartment units and fuel dispensing stations as conditional uses on lots that cover at least 25 acres in a commercial zone. The other contains new design standards for larger shopping centers, those with a total of more than 100,000 square feet of floor space.