Members of Coaldale and Lansford borough councils disagreed Monday about whether they should consider selling their joint water authority to a private company, but did agree that more facts are needed before making a decision.
Representatives of both boards met Monday in Coaldale to decide how to handle the unsolicited offers, from Aqua Pennsylvania of Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County, a subsidiary of Aqua America Inc., and Pennsylvania American Water, based in Mechanicsburg.
After about a half-hour of debate, the council members agreed to take the matter back to their respective boards, which would then decide if they want to hear proposals from the companies.
Lansford meets next on Oct. 26, and Coaldale on Nov. 15.
Coaldale resident Paul Coppie suggested the matter be put to a referendum, allowing voters to decide. Coaldale Councilman Joseph Hnat agreed.
"It's a very big decision. Why should seven people from each borough make that decision?" he asked.
Coaldale council members Hnat, Tom Keerans, Steve Tentylo and Nancy Lorchak attended the meeting. Council President Susan Solt, who works for the water authority, also attended, but sat in the audience.
Lansford Councilmen Tommy Vadyak and President Adam Webber attended, as did water authority Vice Chairman/Superintendent John Surma and treasurer Bob Demyanovich.
If both councils agree to go further, Keerans said he'd like to meet with the companies "and get possible proposals maybe in November or December." Council could decide whether to accept or reject the proposals in January, he said.
But council members were split on whether or not to even explore a sale.
Among the primary concerns raised were that a sale to a private company may trigger price increases and delay service, and that the companies would siphon off water to other areas.
"I think (the sale) is something that could be explored," said Vadyak, who for years has opposed the salary/benefit package given water authority officers. He said any rate increases would be subject to Public Utility Commission oversight.
Hnat said he believes the water authority officials are handling the organization well. The authority raised its rates last January to pay for a multimillion dollar system improvement project. Before that, the last rate increase was in 1966, Hnat said.
"These guys have been doing their jobs," he said. "Why touch something that's working?"
Webber said he agreed that "it's working, absolutely." However, he said he wants to find out "what they want to do, what their intent is, how much they are willing to offer us. It doesn't cost us any money to get the facts out."
Webber said residents of both boroughs "want answers." He called for a forum on the two companies, councils and the water authority.
He was concerned, however, that the companies are eyeing the water, not the actual system, as the prize.
"They understand we have a water supply that's not diminishing" while the population is, he said. "So they know we have a greater supply at hand. They run multiple municipalities ... so they may be looking for another supply."
That alarmed Surma.
"Then you'd better be very careful," he said.
Demyanovich said the authority gets its water from wells, and draws 625,000-750,000 gallons a day. Selling the rights to the water is not a good idea, he said.
Feeding the debate is the controversy over water authority officers' salaries and benefits.
Webber said that "people are not happy" with the packages.
That prompted Surma to remark that the "only people who are unhappy are the people not paying their bills." He cautioned that private companies would be focused on profit.
Keerans said both boroughs could benefit financially from the sale. Lorchak, however, cautioned council to think about the difficulties the borough and others have had after agreeing to turn over their street lights to a private company, Municipal Energy Managers.
After the meeting, Coaldale businessman Nick Ritzko urged caution.
"We have people in any company that are broken once in a while," he said. "But our water system isn't broken it works, and it works well. For years, our rates have been very reasonable. So why do we want to break something that works?