In anticipation that the City of Allentown will be accepting bids from companies to sign a lease for the city's water/sewer systems, the Lehigh County Authority wants the option to keep local public control. To do so, the Lehigh County Authority is asking for an extension to their contract of 14 years, for a total lifetime of fifty years, for the chance to compete with the corporations who will be bidding.
The Lehigh County Board of Commissioners held an informal meeting, lasting three and a half hours, Wednesday night to hear why they should extend the LCA's terms of existence.The first reading on the topic was held last week at the Commissioners meeting.
The LCA was fully represented by all seven members of their Board of Directors, Solicitor, and general manager Wednesday night. Aurel M. Arndt, General Manager of the Lehigh County Authority, acted as the key spokesperson for the LCA.
Ardnt said there are six firms, including the LCA, that have put in bids to the City of Allentown. Allentown water and sewer have around 35,000 customers, who the LCA would have to take on if their bid would be accepted. The LCA is a municipal authority that is a non-profit, non-taxing entity, wanting to merge with the organization of the city.
The LCA was formed in 1966 to provide wholesale water service to the Lehigh County municipalities and was transformed into an operating author in 1969 to serve industrial development in Western Lehigh County. Today, the authority services 22,500 retail customers across 16 townships ranging from Lower Milford in the south to Washington Township in the north.
If the LCA would be granted the 14-year extension and acquire the lease with the City of Allentown, they would be double the size of the authority, something Ardnt said the LCA could handle.
Arndt presented a slideshow with performance information of the LCA as well as the authority's plans for the future. Making their case to have the extension granted, the LCA showed they are financially responsible with having operational revenues of $23 million and expenses of $21.3 million last year. The LCA rates are second lowest in the county, following the Borough of Emmaus. Arndt explained that the LCA focuses on environmental performance, testing drinking and wastewater 24,000 times on an annual basis.
Arndt told the Board of Commissioners the LCA is taking in 4 million gallons a day, as of January 1, and hopes to grow up to 7 million gallons. In the future years up to 2022, the LCA plans to complete 6 projects under administration at $4.4 million and 30 drinking water projects totaling $19.2 million.
"We are a forward looking organization that has not ducked the challenges that arise due to water and wastewater in the county," Ardnt said, "The LCA is maybe not cut from the same mold that some other authorities are… our approach has been to solve problems, we're not perfect, but our goal to solve problems to to create them. We're a learning organization that there are always better ways to do things."
A big challenge for the LCA are "wet weather flows," when wastewater that flows into pipes exceeds those pipes. In the Allentown service area, the LCA and all the municipalities have been placed under an administrative order from the EPA to deal with the issue of the leakage and to elevate the problem by next year.
"We have created a collation with those communities to work on these issues in a fundamental way," Ardnt told the Commissioners. They have created "flow equalization basins" to hold water during peak flows so the pipes have more room for additional water.
Commissioners expressed their concerns, questions and heard from many citizens who both supported and discouraged the extension of the contract.
Commissioners and the public comments posed questions about the impaired sediments in the Little Lehigh River, which Ardnt stated the LCA has been working with various organizations, including the Wildlands Conservancy, to determine what is causing the poor water quality in the river.
Samuel Adams Brewery and Ocean Spray both had representatives present who expressed their support for the bill and shared their positive relationships with the LCA.
"Ultimately we're changing the bidding dynamic substantially," Commissioner Scott Ott stated, if they approve the contract extrusion for the LCA. Ardnt and the LCA board explained that rate caps would be established for those customers in Allentown, so they wouldn't be funding the water and water treatment for the surrounding municipalities.
Resident Dan Delong stated his support saying that "taxpayer do get jobs from the industries that need water and need sewer treatments," explaining the benefits for the Lehigh Valley.
Brad Osborne, Commissioner chair said that whatever the outcome, "This Board [of Commissioners] does not have any jurisdiction with what happens in the affairs of Allentown."
The Board of Commissioners will be officially voting on the bill at the next meeting held 7:30 p.m. February 27, in the Public Hearing Room of the Lehigh County Government Center, 17 South Seventh Street, Allentown.