Bucks County on Tuesday canceled a plan to sell the county’s $1.1 billion sewer system to Aqua Pennsylvania after mounting public opposition to the bold proposal, which would have been the largest privatization ever. of an American public sanitation system.

The three Bucks County commissioners came out publicly on Tuesday in opposition to the sale ahead of a planned rally by opponents on Wednesday at the council of commissioners meeting. The chairman of the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority (BCWSA), an independent entity that has the power to sell the system, said he was not in favor of Aqua continuing with the bid.

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The proposed sale would have generated a massive influx of funds into the county, which could have used the money to pay down debt and fund improvements without raising property taxes. It would also have freed the BCWSA from having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the aging sewage system. But opponents said it was a backdoor tax increase that would saddle sewage customers with rising sewer bills in perpetuity, while losing control of a major public good.

The sewer system serves approximately 100,000 households in 31 towns in Bucks, Montgomery and Chester counties.

“While I see a lot of potential in adding an estimated $1 billion to the county treasury, I can’t say I feel comfortable with this transaction,” said Bob Harvie, chairman of the board. commissioners, in a press release. Harvie said he asked John Cordisco, the chairman of the water and sewer authority, “to stop all negotiations and not to sell any of BCWSA’s operations.”

Michael Sullivan, executive director of the Warwick Township Water and Sewer Authority and regional director of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Pennsylvania, called on the BCWSA board to “do the right thing” and end the the sale. “These essential services must remain in the public trust,” he said.

The Bucks decision is a major setback for private water utilities, which have aggressively sought to expand in Pennsylvania since the state passed new rules in 2016 encouraging private ownership of public water and sanitation systems. sewers. The law, which was originally envisioned as a mechanism for cities to sell their struggling systems to private owners, has turned into a boon for some cities. But this often comes at the expense of sewer customers.

Under Aqua’s proposal to Bucks, current sewer rates would be frozen for a year, but would eventually rise to match Aqua’s rates, which are now about $88 compared to BCWSA’s average monthly rate of $48. The precise impact was unclear as privatization proponents suggested that some of the proceeds from the sale could be used to blunt the rate impact, at least temporarily.

Diane Ellis-Marseglia, the vice president of county commissioners, said customers have expressed fear of “inflated rates” comparable to what has happened in other cities that have sold their systems to private owners. .

“While the financial aspect of this deal is a reasonable alternative given the costly infrastructure work ahead, what we heard from the public was clear, non-partisan and near universal: Don’t sell the public sewer system. BCWSA to a private entity. ,” Ellis-Marseglia said in a statement. She and Harvie, the president, are Democrats.

Gene DiGirolamo, Republican board commissioner, agreed it was time to end the sale process.

“Given the uncertainties that remain around the potential sale and the enormous public opposition to it, I believe it is in the interests of the people of Bucks County that the authority end its negotiations. with Aqua, Inc.”, DiGirolamo said. in a report.

The proposed sale drew immediate protests from BCWSA unions; several nearby water boards; a national group opposed to the privatization of public services, Food and Water Watch; and a local group that opposed the proposed sale of Norristown’s sewage system, Neighbors Opposing Privatization Efforts.

But sentiment shifted sharply against the sale after the Association of Bucks County Township Officials staged a flood of resolutions endorsed by local boards, some of which had sold their sewage systems to the BCWSA assuming they would remain public property.

Skeptical that the county is really walking away from the table, privatization opponents said they plan to continue the protest Wednesday until the BCWSA officially votes to stop the sale. “We haven’t voted them ‘no’ yet, so we’re going to go ahead and stay on them,” said Tom Tosti, director of the local AFSCME chapter that represents authority supervisors.

On Tuesday, the three commissioners praised the BCWSA, which they said had a fiduciary duty to explore the sale after Aqua approached the authority in late 2020 with an initial offer of around $600 million. dollars for water and sewage systems. After the county appraised the property and requested quotes just for the sewer system, Aqua came back with an offer of $1.1 billion.

The BCWSA said it also considered and rejected a similar bid for the system from Pennsylvania American, Aqua’s main rival.

Aqua Pennsylvania, a subsidiary of Essential Utilities Inc. in Bryn Mawr, did not immediately make a statement about the apparent end of its quest for the Bucks system.

The sale process was shrouded in secrecy for months – many local officials suspect it would not have happened without the silent approval of county commissioners – and was not revealed until April. Authorities are not required to conduct a public sale of assets.

State Sen. Steve Santarsiero, who replaced BCWSA President Cordisco as head of the Bucks County Democratic Committee earlier this year, praised the commissioners for opposing the proposed sale.

“They understand that public assets — such as a sewer system — are best owned by a public entity like the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority,” Santarsiero said in a statement. “If the system were to be sold to a private entity, public control – and, importantly, a high degree of accountability to the taxpayer – would be lost forever.”

The BCWSA Board, an independent board whose members are appointed by county commissioners, has the power to sell the authority’s assets without the consent of elected officials. But Harvie, the Bucks County commission chairman, warned the commission had the power to change the BCWSA charter to potentially prevent a sale.

“We were never going to be in conflict with the position of the commissioners,” Cordisco, the BCWSA president, said in a statement. “As such, I have informed the members of the BCWSA Board of Directors that I do not support advancing the proposed offer, and we will determine appropriate next steps.”

The Bucks’ deal to call off the sale appears to avoid a potential conflict that has plagued Delaware County, where the regional sewer authority agreed to sell itself to Aqua Pennsylvania in 2019 just before voters ousted Republicans county control.

Delco Democrats, upon taking office in 2020, voted to dissolve the Delaware County Regional Water Quality Authority, known as DELCORA, and block the sale.

The Commonwealth Court ruled in March that the Delaware County takeover of DELCORA was permitted. But the 2019 sale agreement with Aqua remained a valid contract, allowing the sale to continue. The transaction remains blocked in court for further litigation.