Council member describes years of stormwater transfer process

For three years, City Council’s public works committee watched and took action on what has finally occurred, a city agreement to transfer its stormwater assets over to the Williamsport Sanitary Authority.

The decision, approved Thursday, allays the cost estimated at $5 to $10 million to make repairs and upgrades of stormwater systems unable to be done by city staff alone, according to Councilman Clifford “Skip” Smith, chairman of the council public works and safety committees.

Smith recently lost a re-election bid and will step away from council but during Thursday’s meeting he described the rationale behind the city’s decision to transfer the drainage pipes, catch basins and other parts of the underground system that channels rain water to the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

Smith noted how it was the Williamsport Municipal Water and Sanitary Authority that stepped up and assisted the city by offering its staff, billing department and engineering experience on the project.

“We looked at a cost-to-benefit ratio,” Smith said, adding the city has to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Protection mandates to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and make repairs of infrastructure, some of which includes brick and stone arch construction used decades ago.

Smith pointed out how if the city decided to allow the system to remain as it is and did not work closely with former city engineer John Grado in preparation for the transfer, the city was in danger of potentially losing federal money, the kind that help River Valley Transit to continue to operate the bus and Hiawatha paddlewheel riverboat.

Smith wasn’t a bit pleased with Mayor Gabriel J. Campana’s efforts to have the authority pay for a jet vacuum truck used by the Streets and Parks Department, especially when he discussed with authority members they had such sufficient vehicles in its stock, or receive reimbursement for drainage put into streets during the construction phases of Kohl’s and William Street Redevelopment.

“Instead of fighting to extract money,” Smith said, “we ought to be thankful.”

Additionally, Smith observed how the city has no idea of the condition of the pipes underground. “How can you sell something that could be estimated to be far lower in cost?” Smith asked.

“If we took it over … the taxpayers would be on the hook,” Smith said.

He noted how the authority has spent upwards of $300,000 thus far on the upgrades in preparation for a transfer and how consultants have discovered that there is no power in reserve for the city’s pump stations.

“The public works committee — consisting of Councilman Don Noviello and Councilwoman Bonnie Katz — has done its due diligence,” Smith said.

The timeline continues to tick toward an August deadline for the city to be in compliance with requirements by the EPA, he said.

Moreover, Smith added, if the city would have backed out of the agreement, it would be responsible for $300,000 but it the authority retreated it would not owe the city a dime, he said.

The ball is in the authority’s court, according to Smith.

Before the council transfer decision, Steven W. Cappelli, former state Representative and mayor, who is chairman of the authority, said it will be up to the authority to decide whether the agreement before it is suitable.

Likewise, J. David Smith, assistant city solicitor, indicated the authority counsel, Benjamin Landon, has been given updated revisions and will review them on behalf of the authority.

The authority executive director Doug Keith said in order to accomplish the task of repairing the infrastructure and stormwater management operations, the authority will need to create a stormwater management fee that will be in consumers’ quarterly bills.

The average homeowner would be assessed about $17 per quarter for the stormwater fee, Keith said. Nonprofits and businesses that have more stormwater runoff components on their properties will be assessed larger fees, he said.

Water and sanitary rates, too, should be determined in December, according to Jonathan Baker, authority director of finance.