Starting this month, the rate paid to the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority for sewage treatment will go up for homes across Allegheny County.
As a result of a federal mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency, ALCOSAN is being forced to spend $2 to $5 billion to upgrade the county’s sewer infrastructure. To pay for the upgrades, the cost is being passed on to consumers in the form of rate hikes over the next four years.
While no one wants to pay more, some believe the hikes will create a financial burden for low-income families.
“ALCOSAN has role to play in ensuring the lowest income families aren’t hurt by this investment,” says Emily Alvarado, interim director of the Clean Rivers Campaign. Members of the coalition raised their concerns at a recent ALCOSAN board meeting.
ALCOSAN estimates the 17 percent increase for 2014 will amount to an extra $4.19 per month for a household using 15,000 gallons of water per quarter. The rate will then be raised by 11 percent each year in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Clean Rivers is part of a coalition of community groups calling on ALCOSAN to help create a customer assistance program for low income families to help them pay their sewage bills, in light of the increase rates.
“It’s really a sound business decision," Alvarado says. "The higher their nonpayment rate is, it’s not good for their business,”
However ALCOSAN says creating such a program wouldn’t be feasible.
“Our only source of income at ALCOSAN is the rate payers,” says Nancy Barylak, ALCOSAN spokesperson. “So the rates would have to be raised more to pay for the customers who can’t pay.”
ALCOSAN’s rates are paid by local municipalities who then charge their residents. In Pittsburgh, this is handled by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. PWSA adds additional charges into what they bill households. For this reason Barylak says creating a customer assistance program would be difficult.
“There are disadvantaged citizens out there and we’re well aware of it,” Barylak says. “But as far as establishing a program it would be very difficult to do because would it be applied to the ALCOSAN charge or the municipal charge. We tend to get blamed for the whole kit and caboodle of the charges.”
Still, Clean Rivers says the customer assistance program they’re proposing could be created through a joint effort between ALCOSAN and municipalities. They say similar programs have been implemented throughout the country.
“No matter how ours is configured, we see ALCOSAN having a role to play in providing that service,” says Alvarado. “This is nothing new.”
Without the program, Bill Bartlett of Action United, another community group involved in the coalition, says the rate hikes will have a devastating impact on families who might be unable to pay and have their water shut off.
“Our organization is made up of low and moderate income families and this could essentially pose a very big threat,” Bartlett says. “People can lose their houses over this and their children.”