With a vote of 4-5, the Lehigh County Commissioners denied a 50-year extension of the Lehigh County Authority. Commissioners Scheller, Mazziotti, Ott, Creighton, and Schware voted against the proposal.
Wednesday’s decision will prevent the LCA from bidding on the 50-year lease of Allentown’s water and sewer systems. Pursuant to its charter, the LCA will expire in 36 years.
Despite LCA General Manager Aurel Arndt’s assurances that LCA was “careful, thorough, and thoughtful” in its review of the lease, and despite his warnings that a negative vote would result in a lack of regionalization and a provider unfamiliar with community needs, the commissioners were unswayed.
While the board was tasked with merely deciding whether to extend the LCA’s duration--Allentown has sole authority to accept bids--the five commissioners who voted against the bill seemed unable to separate an extension from the city’s lease.
“There seems to be general agreement that this is a bad transaction. There seems to be general agreement that this transaction exists for the wrong reasons,” said Commissioner Vic Mazziotti. “I think there are tremendous risks in this transaction…I think what this transaction does is take a city problem and make it everybody else’s problem.”
That problem is Allentown’s pension crisis. Proceeds from the lease—valued somewhere between $150 million and $200 million—will help pay pension obligations.
Similarly, Commissioner Michael Schware questioned the lease’s purpose, and even suggested the board investigate its legality.
“True regionalization is something that creates efficiencies and actually lowers the price to the customers and makes things better. This doesn’t happen here,” he said.
During public comment, County Executive Bill Hansell expressed concern for the future of the LCA without an opportunity to bid. If the commissioners don’t trust the LCA board to negotiate with the city, he explained, further oversight is only a small step away. In fact, that is something members of the public have requested at past meetings on this issue. But, Hansell argued, LCA is meant to be a quasi-government entity, not a governmental one.
Bids are due March 21st.