Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto traded insults Thursday over the city’s handling of chronic problems at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.
Turzai, R-Marshall, started it a day earlier by outlining PWSA’s many problems and calling on the mayor and City Council — as he has for years — to turn over authority operations to a private company.
He followed up with stronger language Thursday for Peduto and council, singling out Councilwoman Deb Gross, a member of the PWSA board. He blamed them for PWSA’s woes and said they are incapable of resolving the problems. He said they were aware for years of problems at PWSA, yet did nothing to address them.
“It is evident that the City Council and the mayor have been asleep at the switch and are incapable of right sizing water supply and delivery to city residents,” Turzai said during a phone interview Thursday. “In part, I call out that Deb Gross, who served on City Council and the (PWSA) board, has been nothing but an ideologue and refuses to take accountability for her lack of action.”
Peduto shot back calling Turzai’s comments “bizarre.” Gross said a private company — Veolia North America — which managed PWSA for several years “broke the PWSA billing system and damaged our water quality.”
Veolia has denied the allegations and blamed PWSA workers for the problems.
“I thank the speaker for his concern, but let’s remember he does not represent any city of Pittsburgh residents, and I am confident he and I do not agree on most things,” Gross said.
Peduto said recent testing of PWSA water has indicated the lowest lead levels in years, that lead content will be further reduced now that state regulators have approved the addition of a chemical lead inhibitor and that the city is working on a 12-year plan for strategic improvements to the PWSA system.
“I’ve been crystal clear that this asset remain the property of the people of Pittsburgh, and unlike the representative, I don’t respond to issues with emotion, but with data,” Peduto said. “Once that data-driven work is done, we will logically evaluate if any third-party could help us address the authority’s issues. It won’t be at the whim of someone who doesn’t represent the city residents who own the water system.”
Turzai noted problems including lead levels that have exceeded a federal threshold, PWSA’s overwhelming debt, chronic inability to bill customers correctly, a revolving door of executive directors and water lines that burst daily year round.
He urged Pittsburgh to seriously consider offers made by private enterprise, including Peoples Gas, which said it would build a $350 million water plant and replace PWSA’s century-old infrastructure. Peoples last week gained support of the Pittsburgh Regional Building and Construction Trades Council, which said it is partnering with Peoples Water “to ensure our region has access to clean, healthy, affordable water for generations to come.”
Activist group Pittsburgh United called out Turzai in a Twitter post on Wednesday, indicating a connection between him and People’s President and CEO Morgan O’Brien, who contributed $25,000 to Turzai’s campaign fund between 2012 and 2016.
O’Brien gave the Turzai campaign two separate donations totaling $15,000 in 2016 and one totaling $10,000 in 2012.
He said the donations weren’t meant to sway Turzai.
“I have made contributions to elected leaders on both sides of the aisle, including Representative Turzai,” O’Brien said. “He’s an important and influential leader in state government. I have no influence on Representative Turzai’s views. We are interested and engaged in following the mayor’s lead on a process determining the best path forward for the people of Pittsburgh.”
Turzai said he doesn’t care if Peoples or another company takes over PWSA operations, but said its time for the city to outsource PWSA through open and competitive bidding.
He called Pittsburgh United “a phony, leftist organization.”
“I don’t know who Pittsburgh United is, but it’s what groups like this always do,” he said. “They just attack because they don’t know all the facts. What is their solution? They don’t have one.”
Aly Shaw, an organizer for Pittsburgh United, listed improvements at PWSA including reduced lead levels, PWSA’s aggressive program for replacing lead waterlines and its program for helping low-income customers pay bills. She attributed that to the the work of Pittsburgh United, city council, Peduto and residents.
“I would say we have been addressing the real issues,” she said. “We have been bringing solutions to PWSA. We’ve been working with PWSA to solve these problems.”
Peduto said Turzai is “infatuated” with forcing privatization.
“With bizarre comments like these, you have to wonder why any entity would want to do business with the city,” he said.
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or via Twitter @bobbauder.