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Harrisburg council, administration spar over water system future, meetings

Harrisburg City Council chambers on Tuesday

Two branches of the Harrisburg city government sparred on Tuesday night over an administration plan to interview private companies that have expressed initial interest in taking over the city’s water/sewer system.

At a work session, several City Council members questioned a plan by Mayor Eric Papenfuse to interview four companies that responded to a “request for information” (RFI) issued two months ago by the city.

“You put the cart before the horse,” said council President Wanda Williams. “You should have had a public meeting to explain what you’re considering. In actuality, you’re continuing this process without informing the council.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Papenfuse issued a statement saying that six entities had responded to the city-issued RFI, and the administration determined that four of those companies were qualified and experienced enough to warrant an informational interview. Those companies are:

  • Bryn Mawr-based Aqua America
  • Hershey-based PA American Water
  • Paramus, N.J.-based Suez North America
  • Boston-based Veolia American Water

The first interview is slated to take place on Wednesday, with the last on Oct. 8.

As he has previously, Papenfuse stressed to council that the interviews are for informational purposes only–that there is no formal bidding or sales process underway.

“All we’re doing is gathering information,” he said. “We’re trying to gather information in a clear and transparent way. If we go down that path, we’ll need to have a greater conversation.”

Nonetheless, council members said that they felt left out of the process and said that the public felt the same way.

“I’m receiving five and six emails a day saying that you’re not being transparent about the process,” Williams said.

Papenfuse said that he felt it was necessary to perform this “due diligence” before potentially going through a more public bidding process.

He cited two principal reasons for taking this first step.

First of all, he said that he wants to better understand the city’s options in light of continuing negotiations with the state-appointed Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority over a five-year financial plan for the city. Secondly, he wants to explore options for sewer system improvements other than those undertaken by the city’s municipal utility authority, Capital Region Water (CRW), which plans to impose a user stormwater fee starting Jan. 1.

“We have a comment period closing tomorrow for CRW for a major rate increase that will impact our residents,” Papenfuse said. “Council has not had a hearing despite CRW’s request to do so, despite my request to do so.”

Williams said that council has been attempting to set up a public meeting with CRW to discuss the proposed stormwater fee. That meeting is now scheduled for Oct. 15.

Papenfuse added that he hopes for concrete options from companies that will lead to less pollution flowing into the Susquehanna River and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay, at a cost that city customers can afford to pay.

CRW plans to spend some $315 million over the next 20 years to stem the flow of wastewater into area waterways. But Papenfuse has criticized that plan as incomplete and said that it doesn’t have  final approval from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In the end, council members seemed resigned that the interviews with the private companies would proceed, with Papenfuse pledging greater council and public involvement if the administration decides to take a next step.

“If recommendations come from those meetings, I will share them with council, as well as the underlying reasoning behind them,” Papenfuse said.

This story has been updated to include information about the upcoming CRW meeting with City Council.

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