Tube City Almanac

February 24, 2009

Water Authority Doesn't Dig City Fee

Category: News || By

Every time a utility digs up a street, a future pothole is born. And McKeesport officials think those utilities ought to bear the cost of repairing the damage.

Not so fast, says the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, which operates the city's water system. They argue that McKeesport's fee for what's known as a "street opening" permit is excessive, and they refuse to pay.

That's led to a running dispute has already seen Mayor Jim Brewster threaten to have an MAWC crew arrested for digging up a street without a permit, and the case could yet wind up in court.

. . .

City Solicitor Jason Elash said earlier this month that 80 citations have been filled out against the water authority and are ready to file with Magisterial District Judge Eugene Riazzi.*

MAWC solicitor Ken Burkley hopes that doesn't happen. "All of my dealings with the city have been very good, and we hope to keep it that way," he told the Almanac last week.

The city's permit fee was recently raised from $180 to $1,000. The amount hadn't been increased since 1983, officials said.

"An ordinance is a law, and they're not above the law," Brewster said at this month's council meeting. He called the authority "arrogant."

. . .

Although McKeesport is located in Allegheny County, water service to the city and several suburbs has been provided by MAWC since 1987. The Westmoreland authority bought the McKeesport Water Authority after a series of problems at the old treatment plant under the 15th Avenue Bridge, including contamination by giardia parasites that sickened 300 people.

There have been raw feelings between the city and MAWC lately; the water authority recently closed its office in Christy Park, which means repair crews are now dispatched from New Stanton, and customers must drive about a half-hour for face-to-face service.

"They snookered us when they took over the water business in the first place," Councilman Darryl Segina said.

However, city officials said the immediate problem is damage being caused to local streets by water authority crews.

Brewster counted 120 holes in Jenny Lind Street that he said were the result of MAWC work. "They're creating eventual potholes," he said.

. . .

But cities cannot use street opening permits to pay for street paving projects, Burkley argued. The fee, he said, should be dictated by the cost of administering the permit.

"It has to be directly connected to the cost of the municipality administering their police power," Burkley said. "There is no way the city of McKeesport can ever justify going from $180 to $1,000. If every community we served charged $1,000 for every street opening, we'd have to quadruple our water rates."

Other municipalities in MAWC's service area charge fees ranging from $50 to $200 per opening, he said. "I defy you to find any community that comes anywhere close to $1,000," Burkley said.

An unscientific web search found that Whitehall charges $60, while Crafton, Dormont and Fox Chapel each charge $50.

Blawnox charges $250, while Monroeville charges $25.

Several communities also assess a fee (generally less than $1) for each square foot of pavement disturbed.

. . .

In addition, some municipalities require utilities to post a refundable bond. In Pittsburgh, contractors must obtain $10,000 in insurance before opening a street.

Burkley said the authority would be willing to post a bond "that's reasonable and in line with other municipalities."

MAWC appears to be the only utility disputing the street opening fee. According to Elash, Equitable Gas Co. plans to open 600 holes this year as part of a gas line replacement program, and has agreed to pay the city about $205,000.

"They were willing to work with us," Elash told council this month.

Burkley said the authority is not willing to negotiate. "How do you reach a settlement on the cost of a police power?" he said. "It's got to all be the same."

. . .

The water authority is willing to coordinate projects with the city to make sure that any planned line maintenance is completed before a street is repaved, Burkley said.

And MAWC is willing to come back and fix any street repairs done by authority crews that aren't satisfactory, he said.

"We don't have bad relationships with the municipalities we deal with," Burkley said, "but we can't be a source of revenue for them ... I can't believe it takes 10 times as much to administer a street-opening fee than it does in North Huntingdon, Irwin or Jeannette."

* --- Correction appended Feb. 25.

Your Comments are Welcome!

Though this may not be the right way to do it, we do need to find a way to stop utilities from completely wrecking our streets. As you drive around, there are many strrets that were once well paved , or even worse, good condition brick, that have a 3 foot wide patch all the way down the street. That pretty much screws up everything. When it is a brick street withan asphalt patch, that is the worst. They become potholes, make the road bumpy, which damages our vehicles, and generally make things look bad. Though not in McKeesport, I routinely travel Old William Penn Hwy in Murrysville. It was a great stretch until about a year ago when it got tore up. Now there is that familier 3 foot wide x 3 mile long patch job that is so rough you have to drive 25mph or slower. I am sure there are people that avoid these roads becuase of this, which hurts business.
Adam - February 24, 2009

I agree with Adam 100%. I believe, and I think the Mayor mentioned, that the $1000 fee was instituted that high to shock utilities that were ignoring the former ordinance.

How about they pay the $1000 up front (except in case of emergency) and we refund a portion when their repair work meets our standards?

I’ve recently posted on my blog why we should consider repairing and possibly even restoring brick streets in McKeesport.


Also, we need all utilities to replace brick with brick and concrete with concrete. I’m tired of asphalt patching that sinks and never lasts.

Don’t get me started on the selling off of the Water Authority. Not only was that a great revenue source, the selling price was an order of magnitude too small and the contract should have guaranteed Westmoreland keeping a service garage and office in town.

-Councilman Shelly
Paul Shelly (URL) - February 25, 2009

I do not see how Our Fair City can justify a 555% increase in their fee for the water company when they do not charge that amount for other utility companies. “Equitable Gas Co. plans to open 600 holes this year as part of a gas line replacement program, and has agreed to pay the city about $205,000” that’s only $342 per hole. If they charge this then then water would have to raise the rates for city residents and if people don’t pay the bills then they get thier water shut off. If the city feels that the fees need to be raised then they should be in-line with other communities.
Chris - February 25, 2009

In response to Councilman Shelly’s statement of “our standards” Would those be the same “standards” that has our end of the Mansfield bridge looking like a war zone, and in the East End where the street light is still on the ground at the bottom of Lincoln Way. Maybe if the city made an effort in some of these areas your bark would have more bite.
Chris - February 25, 2009

Council Man Paul

Lets not forget that the McKeesport Water Authority was poisoning us and we were grateful at the time for someone to step in and correct the problem.

If you want to go back to “Boiling” and the National Gaurd monitoring “Water Buffaloes” More power to Ya but then again your willing to blindly follow our “Two Bright Leaders”

Man this is just sad getting sadder
Cox's Jimmy - February 27, 2009

Not sure about all the rules in PA, but in Maryland fees must be reasonably related to the cost of processing the permit. They cannot be turned into a tax in disguise. So Burkley’s comments have some validity. OTOH, I think the idea of the utlitiy posting a bond is logical and practical. Any excavation and repair work should result in the road surface being stable and consistent with the surfacing prior to the work. This problem is not limited to the local situation—it seems to be endemic.
ebtnut - February 27, 2009


I like your plan about fixing/reverting streets to brick. I particularly miss them on Patterson Ave. I think there should be concrete at all intersections with a traffic light. People drive too fast, so when the light turns red they have to jam on the brakes. That causes the blacktop to ripple like an area rug.
Thee dude - February 27, 2009

If anyone really remembers Patterson Ave before it was paved that road was like the surface at Pointe Du Hoc in France after the allies bombed it for days, the road surface had so many deep dips in it cars would actually snap the tierod ends and blow ball joints travelling towards Walnut street.
I agree that brick is definatly more durable than asphalt but face it when the brick gets wet and if there’s wet leaves or the slightest coating of ice on bricks thry become super slick. Asphalt is designed to provide proper traction and gripping ability for stopping, people are going to drive just as fast on brick as on asphalt but instead of causing rippling at the stop sign they will just “Jet” out into cross traffic.

The alterniave would be concrete but rember the “EXCELLENT” job of concrete that was used whe Versailles Ave. was paved? It lasted for about one year and no one was held responsable for the poor job and materials used.
Lets just go back to the Greeky Jakomas paving job of ripping the bricks out of the center of the street and fill it with concrete and leave the sides brick
Cox's Jimmy - February 27, 2009

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