Two top Allentown officials failed to stop Coplay’s borough council from formally opposing the city’s plan to lease its water and sewer systems.
On Tuesday night, Coplay’s council vote 6-0 to oppose the proposed 50-year lease and encouraged the Coplay-Whitehall Sewer Authority “to do everything possible to protect the ratepayers of Coplay.”
At the beginning of council’s meeting, Allentown Solicitor Jerry Snyder and city Finance Director Gary Strathearn appealed to borough council to tone down its proposed resolution. The two officials then waited until the end of the meeting – more than 90 minutes later -- to learn they had failed.
“If you feel it necessary tonight to have something on the record, I would ask you to consider changing one word – instead of saying ‘expressing opposition’ let’s express ‘concern’ so we work together on this,” said Snyder before the vote. “If you have concerns we’ll deal with them. If you don’t think we’ll deal with them, you have no trust for us and you’ll do what you want to do.”
Not a single member of council agreed with Snyder’s proposed word change.
Snyder told council members he was attending their meeting at the request of Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski. He repeatedly said he was there to answer any questions or address any concerns.
Snyder told council “you don’t know anything about our side and what we’re trying to do and how we’re willing to work with you. If you think what I’m telling you is not correct, let’s talk.”
Allentown has long-term agreements with several neighboring municipalities and authorities to provide water and/or sewage disposal service, including the Coplay-Whitehall Sewer Authority.
Snyder repeatedly said the proposed lease will not result in rate increases for customers of that sewer authority.
But John Schreiner, chair of the sewer authority, told borough council that not one member of the authority board believes rates will remain the same if Allentown’s waste water treatment plant is leased. “Our rates will go up,” said Schreiner. “We believe it wholeheartedly. How much, I don’t know. But it is our job to protect the people of Whitehall and Coplay.”
“We’re worried about our ratepayers here in Coplay,” echoed borough council president Louis Bodish.
Pounding the podium, Snyder said the proposed lease agreement requires any concessionaire “to honor all our agreements to the letter. Those agreements are in perpetuity. They’re forever.”
In addition to Coplay Whitehall, Snyder said signatories to those agreements with the city include South Whitehall, Salisbury, Lehigh County Authority and Emmaus.
Both Bodish and council member Charles Sodl expressed skepticism that any water company is going to spend $150 million to $200 million to lease Allentown’s water and sewer systems and be willing to wait a long time for a return on that investment.
Sodl said he feels sorry for Allentown, which faces a multi-million pension crisis, “but I don’t want to pay your bill.”
Said Snyder: “If this doesn’t make financial sense, we’re not going to do it.”
To a utility, explained Strathearn, a 50-year lease is not that long a time. “They are slow growth.” He said if the city’s sewer and water systems are leased for $200 million for 50 years, that’s $4 million a year, spread out over 86,000 connections in the city. Strathearn said the city’s lease agreement contract does not allow the company that leases the water/sewer systems “to capture that money in the first couple of years.”
Coplay Whitehall Sewer Authority provides sewerage service to both the borough and Whitehall Township. Waste water from both municipalities is piped to Allentown’s sewage treatment plant. Four of the authority’s seven members are appointed by Whitehall commissioners and three are appointed by the Coplay Council.
On Oct. 8, neighboring Whitehall Township’s commissioners also unanimously voted to oppose the city’s proposed lease, to protect ratepayers who live in the township.
Snyder told council Whitehall’s resolution has no impact on Allentown, and nor would Coplay’s, “except that it tends to foster distrust between people that should be working together. To us, this is not an adversarial issue. Let’s not turn this into an adversarial situation.”
“It really does come down to a trust issue,” said Whitehall Mayor Edward Hozza, who also attended the Coplay council meeting.
Hozza said he found out about Allentown’s controversial NIZ legislation when a reporter called him, rather than the city meeting with neighboring municipalities to explain NIZ. And he learned about the city’s proposed water and sewer lease from a newspaper, rather than someone from the city meeting with Whitehall officials or at least calling to explain its plans.
Snyder said he attended that Oct. 8 meeting in Whitehall, but did not speak before commissioners voted 7-0 against the lease because he did not understand the rules.
Hozza said just before Whitehall commissioners voted to oppose the lease on Oct. 8, Linda Snyder, their president, asked if there were any questions from the floor. “No one stood up. That is the time, in a first-class township, that you raise your hand and go to the podium.”
“Our job is to represent the people that elected us and to look out for their best interests as taxpayers and ratepayers,” said Hozza. “As you are elected officials of the borough of Coplay, I just wanted to share your neighboring community’s concerns about this impending lease agreement.”