Neighboring communities react to Wilkes-Barre’s sewer authority plan with surprise, skepticism

By Joe Dolinsky - [email protected] | August 2nd, 2015 7:20 pm

WILKES-BARRE — When Hanover Township sought to receive fees from neighboring communities for their use of the township’s sanitary system, officials extended the olive branch.

There were hiccups. But in the end, there was agreement.

In Wilkes-Barre, meanwhile, there will soon be an authority.

City officials are finalizing the groundwork of a deal that would create a municipal sewer authority, with the intent of charging fees to surrounding communities — including Wilkes-Barre Township and Plains Township — for strain they say development in those places has placed on the city’s aging sanitary system.

That strain costs Wilkes-Barre approximately $900,000 per year on repairs to its more than century-old sewer system, City Director of Operations Butch Frati said, and parts of the system need to be replaced.

“And the only way to do it is to generate a source of income,” Frati said.

In the dark

Efforts to contact Wilkes-Barre Township Manger Mike Revitt were unsuccessful.

An official from Plains Township, one of the communities Frati has identified as a contributor to Wilkes-Barre’s sanitary system woes, said he was in the dark over what the city had in store for them.

“We don’t know a thing,” said Plains Township Sewer Manager Andrew Lazar.

“We don’t know what Wilkes-Barre city’s going to do. Once we know what they’re going to do, we’ll make our plans,” he said.

Told of Lazar’s comments, Frati said Wilkes-Barre officials have “every intent to work with these communities” and hope to open the lines of communication within the next two weeks.

In the meanwhile, Frati said officials have scheduled a meeting with a Philadelphia area attorney recommended by Cardno BCM, an engineering firm from Plymouth Meeting which will assist the city in forming the authority.

At a special session last week, council voted 4-1 to approve the partnership. Vocal in his opposition, Councilman Tony George cast the lone dissenting vote.

Once the sides are communicating, Frati said he expects a “smooth, painless effort on everyone’s behalf.”

“We’re not going to demand anything,” he said. “We’re going to do it the right way. Once we have an idea where we stand legally, we’ll do that.”

Good neighbors

When faced with a similar situation, Hanover Township Manager Samuel Guesto said officials sought a softer approach.

In 2013, Wilkes-Barre Township officials agreed to pay $100,000 to Hanover Township for prior repair and maintenance costs incurred, Guesto said. The fees are to be paid in $20,000 increments over a five-year period.

Guesto said the township also has smaller agreements with Ashley, Sugar Notch, and Warrior Run.

Faced with the options, Guesto said officials felt an agreement was the neighborly option.

“An agreement is something both parties enter into, so it’s a little bit different of a way to accomplish something. Not saying it’s a right way or wrong way, but an agreement is something that two parties both have input on,” Guesto said.

To calculate exactly how much water was coming into Hanover Township’s lines via Wilkes-Barre Township, Guesto said a flow capacity study was performed by their engineers and then reviewed and approved by Wilkes-Barre Township officials.

Guesto said a single line takes takes everything in Wilkes-Barre Township from Mundy Street to Highland Park Boulevard.

“Our agreement is in place for that, or if there’s any major or substantial repairs there’s also a percentage, 41 percent, that would pay for those costs that exceed $25,000,” he said.

Ideally, Frati said the city would prefer a similar deal.

In the pact with Wilkes-Barre Township, Guesto acknowledged there were “hurdles to get over to a point where it would be agreeable,” but declined to elaborate further on the scope of the issues.

‘It’s ridiculous’

Lazar, 88, has served on the township’s sewer authority since 1971, seven years before the township’s $14 million sanitary system was completed.

To recoup costs incurred by installing the system, Lazar said residents were billed $120 per year. That fee has since dropped to approximately $60, he said.

And he would prefer to keep it that way.

“I don’t want to see the residents in Plains Township have to add on additional fees,” Lazar said. “We’ve been trying to save the residents’ fees and now these people are coming to try and tax us. It’s ridiculous.”

Lazar acknowledged the township has seen an uptick in development but that their own sanitary system was “built to handle it.”

He would not comment on whether Plains Township would respond to the city’s plan with litigation.

“We’ll decide that when we know what Wilkes-Barre city is doing,” he said.

Plains Twp. official: ‘It’s ridiculous’

By Joe Dolinsky

[email protected]

Reach Joe Dolinsky at 570-991-6110 or on Twitter @JoeDolinskyTL.