The Phoenix Reporter & Item (http://www.phoenixvillenews.com)

Trappe/Collegeville debate water system oversight


By Evan Brandt, ebrandt@pottsmerc.com

Saturday, June 8, 2013

TRAPPE — The question of whether the joint water system shared by Trappe and Collegeville should continue to be administered by a joint committee, or by the municipal authority that already oversees the sewer system remained a subject of debate at both Trappe and Collegeville borough councils this week.
It is by no means the first time the matter has been discussed.
In fact some in Trappe pointed to a lawsuit settlement from 1990 that said if the water and sewer operations were ever to be merged under a single umbrella that it would be the joint committee model — in which three appointees from each borough comprise the governing board — would be used rather than the municipal authority model.
But Collegeville Borough Council is not so convinced that’s such a hot idea, said Collegeville Borough Manager Geoff Thompson.
“We just think that using the municipal authority model, which can borrow money for capital projects, is better than the committee model, which has no legal power,” he said.
Wednesday night, according to Perkiomen Valley PATCH, Collegeville Borough Council voted unanimously to approve the resolution, merging the two under the umbrella of the authority.
The matter has been discussed both by the Joint Public Works Committee, which runs the water system as well as providing the kind of maintenance work normally performed by a public works department, as well as the Collegeville-Trappe Municipal Authority, or CTMA.
A proposed resolution was forwarded to Trappe Borough Council in October, but the council members said they had too many questions about the impacts of a merger under the municipal authority to act, and the matter was tabled while the two borough solicitors, Dan Onorato for Trappe and Mark Hosterman for Collegeville, met to try to determine answers so some of those questions.
At the June 4 council meeting, Onorato provided answers to some of those questions after the resolution from October was added to the meeting agenda at the last minute.
Some in the audience made it clear that had concerns that the matter would not be discussed publicly before a vote, and expressed relief not only that Onorato strongly advocated a thorough public discussion of the issues, but also that borough council put off a vote on the resolution.
Instead, council voted unanimously to request that the CTMA invite both Trappe and Collegeville borough councils to the next meeting at which its pension consultant can make a presentation about the impact or merging under the authority model would have on the pensions of those in public works.
That issue was among the primary concerns voiced by Trappe Councilman Nevin Scholl, who has pointed out that currently, the public works employees, who are unionized, are on Collegeville’s pension plan, for which Collegeville receives partial state reimbursement.
Moving them to a municipal authority would mean a loss of state aid, a payment the two boroughs would need to make up.
“The pension issue could be a deal-breaker,” said Trappe Councilwoman Catherine Johnson.
Thompson acknowledged that downside, but said the Collegeville council members feel the benefits of streamlining the governance of both systems is worth that cost.
He also noted that in addition to saving money by requiring fewer solicitors, such a system also “takes the politics” out of decisions regarding the water and sewer systems.
But that is exactly Stu Strauss’s problem.
A former member of Trappe Borough Council, Strauss said without the joint committee model, which has only members of each borough council making decisions, water rate hikes and other important decisions will be taken out of the hands of those who are directly accountable to the ratepayers on election day.
In advocating for some kind of public hearing, Strauss said “the ratepayers should know that this could cost more money, it could raise water rates and its taking the power to raise rates out of the hands of elected officials and putting it into the hands of appointed officials.”
He concluded, “personally, I would rather it be in the hands of public officials who can be held accountable.”
Trappe Council Vice President Paul Edwards, who currently serves as chairman of the joint committee, endorses the idea of moving to an authority, and he disputed the contention that the matter is being brought up abruptly.
“We had a presentation in this room in October, 2008 on the pros and cons, it’s not like this is a new project. We’re not just starting this today,” Edwards said.
“The benefits to combining the two would be that both boroughs would save time and money,” said Edwards. “We would only need one audit, one insurance policy, less time at monthly meetings, fewer banking fees and one solicitor.
“We’re spending all of this money, and redundancy, and quite frankly it’s frustrating to be at the committee, and then have to go back and forth,” said Edwards.
His comments echoed those made the next night by fellow committee member Arnold Mann at the Collegeville council meeting, as reported by PATCH.
However Onorato told Trappe council that too many questions remain unanswered and that the resolution Collegeville approved the next night, “puts the cart before the horse,” by calling for the merger of the two entities while not answering questions like how the costs associated with the joint public works department would be allocated and how that work would be assigned.
He also warned Trappe Council against voting on a matter that had not been thoroughly vetted publicly.
“My fear is Collegeville wants you to vote on this tonight and then never discuss it in public again, and that’s just wrong, and the vote could be challenged in court,” Onorato said.
With Collegeville’s vote and Trappe’s refusal to vote, the matter remains unresolved. It remains unclear if both bouth councils will be invited to the next joint meeting and, if invited, whether they will attend.
Follow Evan Brandt on Twitter @PottstownNews