The Schmidt Hall of Reading Area Community College Wednesday night was filled with citizens of Reading looking for answers and an outlet for their concerns over the proposed dissolution of Reading Area Water Authority (RAWA).
The meeting, organized and moderated by Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer to get his message out, was comprised of eight presentations on topics pertaining to the water system lease and Act 47.
The mayor said he wants to negotiate a new long-term lease with RAWA while many on city council are considering terminating the water authority.
According to a handout from City Council, council members will remain accessible to the public throughout this process by making one-on-one meetings available.
Though a majority of council members were not present at the meeting, the handout outlines their goals, positions and responsibilities concerning the water lease issue.
The document also says City Council will work to protect the system in the short and long term, find the best way to generate revenue through the water system, and create a new lease with rate caps.
Council will also negotiate employee protection with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), improve customer relations, and increase the City's ability to have more control.
Though the City Council and administration are not currently meeting, Spencer clarified that there is no direct conflict between the two groups.
“There is no conflict. Under the state act, Council has the right to take back the water authority and dissolve it. Regardless of how I feel, that is their right by the state,” said Spencer.
City Councilman Chris Daubert, one of two members working with the mayor to talk with RAWA, was welcomed by the audience.
“It’s not about council vs. administration, or council vs. RAWA… It’s about the people and about the water,” said Daubert.
He also made it clear that he was opposed to both privatization and dissolution and instead believes in negotiations with RAWA with conditions of reform in place.
Sam Bernhardt, Senior Organizer of Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocate non-profit, said privatization historically leads to rate hikes, lower quality of service, and a degraded environment.
John Miravich, Esq., a lawyer present at the meeting, suggested that before moving forward, any lease should be backed up with an expert valuation opinion.
He recommended that a valuation of water assets be undertaken now as it would provide data for the City’s advisors to make a recommendation and could be used as a benchmark to gauge the value of RAWA’s offer.
He said the process could be completed in about 6-8 weeks from the start date.
Miravich also noted there are not many negatives to negotiating with RAWA as there are no legal or financial obstacles and up to $4 million will be saved instead of hiring lawyers and advisors to assist in the request for proposal (RFP) process.
Ernie Schlegel, board member of RAWA, reviewed the advantages of the new proposed lease. He reviewed items such as a $200,000,000 upfront payment to the City of Reading, a restriction on rate increases, and elimination of the need to pay off the current debt.
Mayor Spencer says he intends to have at least two more town hall meetings to continue to educate the public on the details of all the issues.