On a comfortably warm evening on July 25, a stream of Pittsburgh residents took to the microphone at the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center in the Hill District, raised their right hand and swore to tell the truth. Then they let an administrative law judge know how proposed water rate hikes would affect them, their families and their communities.
It was the second part of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) public hearing on the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority’s (PWSA) proposed rate increase that would hike residential water bills by nearly 70% over three years.
On Aug. 9, the PUC scheduled two additional hearings that will take place over the phone on Aug. 29 at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. PWSA customers who want to testify should pre-register by 4 p.m. on Aug. 28 by contacting the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate at 1-800-684-6560 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To attend the Aug. 29 hearing by phone, call the toll-free number 877-929-1529, then enter the passcode 27666478. Attendees will be asked for their names before they can join the hearing.
Allegheny County Councilmember DeWitt Walton, who said he is on a fixed income as a retiree, told the last public hearing that more than 40% of his constituents have per capita incomes below $20,000 a year.
Walton represents District 10, which includes parts of the city’s neighborhoods in the Hill District, Oakland, Highland Park, East Liberty, Homewood and Bloomfield, as well as Braddock Hills, Edgewood, Forest Hills and Wilkinsburg.
“The proposed rate increases will clearly decimate their ability to survive,” Walton said. “They are living below poverty rates currently and these proposed rate increases will make it impossible for them to survive or even think about flourishing. So I strongly urge the Public Utility Commission to consider not raising the rates and at worst raising them at a much lower level.”
When the PWSA proposed the water rates in May, the PUC held it up to investigate the need for the increases, which were scheduled over three years.
The charge for water, sewer and stormwater for residential customers, according to the PWSA’s notice, would go from the current $86.43 a month to $146.12 a month in 2026, a 69% increase.
“When I looked up the price change I said ‘Oh my god’,” added Matthew Case of the North Side. He said he forwarded the information to his wife who said she couldn’t believe the change in rates. “We’re average city people. We’re not seeing a 69% change in our income over the next couple years. It’s not going to be there.”
Case asked the administrative law judge of the PUC, Gail Chiodo, to lower the proposed increase or even spread it out over a longer period of time.
“We got less of a pay raise than the cost of living went up,” Case said. “We’re making less than we were.”
The evening in-person hearing was the second hearing of the day. In addition to the in-person hearings, Chiodo also held two hearings over the phone on July 27.
At the in-person hearing Derek Scott III of East Liberty, who owns a construction company, said there have to be alternative ways to resolve the issues facing the water authority that do not demand such a high increase.
“If we all had to pay 60 or 70% more in fuel, we wouldn’t drive. If we had to pay 60 or 70% more on food, we would eat less,” he said. But water, he pointed out, is essential and can’t be just given up.
“I can’t go to my employer and ask for a raise to pay my water,” Patrice McNeally of Beltzhoover testified. “And I shouldn’t have to take a second job to brush my teeth, take a shower and flush my toilet.”
When the PWSA decided to ask for the higher rates, its board of directors unanimously approved the request at its April 28 meeting without discussion, according to the meeting minutes.
In addition to the 69% increase for residential customers, over the three years the rates for typical commercial customers, including stores and landlords of multi-family buildings, would go up 87.4%, industrial customers would see an increase of 90.5%, and the health and education sector would experience a 90.2% increase.
At the July 28 public meeting, BJ Leber, a member of the board’s of directors, expressed her and the rest of the board’s confidence in the leadership of the PWSA and their support for the increases.
“The staff has done a great job of keeping the board informed of the process and the need and the numbers behind the rate increase, but most importantly how it all relates to the mission of continuing to provide clean water to those who live in our region,” Leber said, “And we also understand that increases are always difficult but feel completely comfortable that these are going to be used to continue the mission but then also to continue the capital improvements in the system.”
When other water companies have asked for increases, the PUC has granted them, but at a reduced rate.
Last year, Pennsylvania American Water and its wastewater component sought a $173.2 million or 20.8% increase in its rates. The company, which is part of the publicly traded American Water, provides water and handles the wastewater for about 2.3 million people in 37 counties of Pennsylvania including customers in the South Hills.
The PUC did not allow the full increase. Instead, in December, the commission allowed Pennsylvania American Water to increase rates overall by $138 million or 16.6%. According to the PUC, the average customer now pays Pennsylvania American Water $69.24 for water and $106.65 for sewage every month.
The PWSA, which is a smaller water system, providing service to about 116,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in the city and surrounding communities, has asked for a larger overall increase of $146.1 million over the three years.
In May 2022, Aqua Pennsylvania Inc. and Aqua Pennsylvania Wastewater Inc., which had sought a combined $97.7 million increase in water and sewer rates, received approval from the PUC for a $69.2 million hike, which was about 30% less than the company’s requested increase.
City Council’s representative on the PWSA’s board of directors, Erika Strassburger, who represents Shadyside, Squirrel Hill North and part of Oakland, supports the rate increase to take care of all of the problems that have accumulated in the system by not making the hard choices to update the water system for decades.
“Ideally this spending would have happened over the past 50 years or so,” Strassburger said. “No one wants to raise rates on any residents,” she said.
She pointed to the lead line replacements, the renovations of the water treatment plant and pumping stations, and the replacements of failing water mains, which are all projects that need to happen. Without the increases, she said, “we would just be kicking the can down the road.”
Clarifications: The authority is seeking to increase the distribution system improvement charge, which is not a flat fee, as was stated in a story, “PWSA proposes three years of water rate increases in Pittsburgh” on June 26, but instead is a charge based on water usage. That fee would go from 5% of a customer’s monthly water and wastewater conveyance charges to 7.5%, which is a 50% increase in the charge. Additionally, we said the minimum charge, which is a higher rate on the first 1,000 gallons of water used by residential customers and on larger amounts for commercial, industrial and health and education customers, would be eliminated in 2025 if the rate increase was approved, but PWSA spokesperson Rebecca Zito, who declined to comment for the original story, said it would only begin to be phased out that year. We are sorry for the confusion.