High court: Share sewer costs

Thursday, November 16, 2006

By Len Barcousky, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

People in West View can expect their sewer rates to increase next year after the borough authority develops a plan to pay its share of costs for improvements to a regional trunk line.

West View and its water authority had argued unsuccessfully in Allegheny County and Commonwealth courts that they should not have to pay about $7 million to help finance the project.

West View's solicitor then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which, in September, declined to review the lower-court rulings.

Representatives of the Girty's Run Joint Sewer Authority and West View officials are negotiating a payment schedule, authority solicitor Lawrence Maiello said Monday.

The Girty's Run Authority built two large holding tanks in Ross and Shaler to expand the carrying capacity of its 30-inch trunk line from 12 million to 20 million gallons of waste water a day.

That extra capacity is critical during heavy rains when storm water leaks into older sanitary sewer lines. The new tanks temporarily hold the mix of storm water and raw sewage and release it at a slower rate that doesn't overwhelm the Alcosan treatment plant, pollute streams or back up into customers' homes.

While West View agreed many years ago to pay 25 percent of the maintenance cost for the trunk line, officials argued that their small borough was not responsible for anywhere near 25 percent of the extra material now flowing through the pipe during and after storms. For that reason, it should not be required to pay one-quarter of the cost for the sewer upgrade.

West View has already spent more than $1.4 million plugging leaks and replacing pipe to reduce the amount of storm water leaking into its portion of the sewer system, said Dan Daugherty, executive director of the West View authority.

"We tightened up our system before the plan for these tanks was announced," he said.

Ross, Shaler, Reserve and Millvale established Girty's Run as a regional agency. While not an authority member, West View sends its sewage to Allegheny County's treatment plant via the trunk line. That pipe runs from Rochester Road down Babcock Boulevard in Ross before tying into the Alcosan system in Millvale.

Installation of the retention tanks was a much cheaper alternative to the sewage overflow problem than to dig up and replace the existing line, Mr. Maiello said.

The suit began in 1996 with the Girty's Run Authority filing suit to collect a portion of the costs for the tanks project from West View and its authority. Allegheny County Common Pleas Court ruled against West View in 2004. That decision that was upheld this year by Commonwealth Court, prompting the unsuccessful appeal to the state Supreme Court.

West View and its authority expect to announce a financing plan by early next year, Mr. Daugherty said.

He cited several reasons that West View should not have been held responsible for such a large share of the project cost.

West View's population has shrunk to about 7,400, while Ross has 35,000 people and large areas of extensive commercial development.

"We went back and did what we were supposed to do in tightening up our part of the system," he said. "We still don't believe we are responsible for the overflow.

"Still, we will have to come up with our share and our people will have to pay for it."

Sewer rates usually are based on water consumption.

West View customers now pay about 81 cents per thousand gallons of water used, about one-third of the $2.35-per-thousand rate that homeowners served by the Girty's Run Authority face.

Mr. Daugherty declined to speculate on new rates for West View.

"We are checking to see exactly what we owe and conferring with rate consultants on how to pay for it."

The authority is likely to issue bonds to cover its share of the project, and any increase in future sewer rates will be based on the cost of paying off that debt.