Is this really the legacy borough council desires?
To the editor:
The war of words continues.
On one side Lewistown Borough Council. On the other the townships of Armagh, Brown, Union, Derry, and Granville and the boroughs of Juniata Terrace and Burnham.
In the middle is the Municipal Authority of the Borough Lewistown (MABL), the non-profit provider of public water for 30,000 county residents.
Quite simply, the water authority has a lot of cash and Lewistown Borough Council wants it.
Today’s problem originated in 1944 when Lewistown’s Council formed MABL to replace the old Lewistown-Reedsville Water Co. A $1.65 million bond issue was arranged and MABL purchased the LRWC and its 7,400 customers. Lewistown Borough contributed $0 in establishing the authority or buying LRWC. Lewistown Borough, as I understand it, has never contributed any money to the authority.
Because Lewistown Borough Council formed the water authority state law indicates the authority belongs to Lewistown Borough. The outlying areas have no ownership.
The municipalities opposed point out that 68 percent of MABL’s customers live outside Lewistown’s borders — that the current cash reserves and the annual revenue have largely been made possible by non-Lewistown customers. Should water customers living outside the borough be expected to help pay Lewistown’s bills?
When water service was extended to Belleville a few years ago, the new customers paid for the construction of the line with fees added to their water bills. No funding came from the authority and certainly none from Lewistown. Does Lewistown Borough Council want to say to the people of Union Township, “You paid for the line, but it is ours now, and we’ll do with it what we want”? Other pockets of self-funded growth have taken place within the system.
State law is contradictory. One says revenue from an authority cannot be used for any purpose other than the “stated mission” of the authority, i.e. Lewistown can’t use authority revenues to pay borough expenses. Another law then says the “city” must obtain 75% approval from other municipalities where there is a service agreement in order to terminate an authority or to transfer reserves, assets, or funds from an authority to the “city.”
Council could find its way around those legal roadblocks by leasing the entire water system to a third party. In a very childish threat, Council hinted at selling the water company to a for-profit entity, banking the proceeds and living happily ever after. Not a surprise gesture considering how often council has displayed characteristics of a dysfunctional family in recent years.
Because Lewistown’s council has sole authority over who is appointed to the authority board, to expedite its voting majority takeover of the authority and its assets, council has already taken steps toward majority control by naming two of its supporters to the board. They replaced two longtime members, one with 22 years of service, the other 15 years. Valuable experience lost.
Hindsight is easy. As our public water system grew to its current 11,100 customers in eight municipalities the authority should have been reorganized into a joint regional board with, say, one representative from each area appointed by elected officials from each area. That would have safeguarded the forced takeover we are now witnessing.
Lewistown explains it needs the revenue to bolster its general budget.
Council claims that Lewistown is hampered because it has maxed out its potential for growth. Let’s refresh council’s memory, say from the flood of ’72 to today. Dozens of flooded residential properties on the south end have been replaced by higher taxed commercial properties — Giant Food, Lingle Distributing, Burger King, Fisher Auto Parts, three mall buildings at Kish Creek Center where the Wine & Spirits shop sits. The Kish Apartments is a high-density residential building now sitting on Hale Street. JVB built two new branches in Lewistown. Kish Bank is at the Kish Creek Center. Sheetz and Dollar General have come to town. The new CVS on Market Street replaced nearly a block of deteriorating properties.
Lewistown’s tax base has been anything but stagnant.
In addition, the borough has received valuable help from Downtown Lewistown Inc. by improving sidewalks and overall appearance. To its credit, council has been taking an active role to Lewistown’s bigger problem — blight among many empty residences and store fronts.
How can the authority issue be resolved?
A first step needs to be a face-to-face meeting between council and the other municipalities. Attorneys will likely need to be present, along with an independent individual with a knowledge of the state’s municipal laws.
Altoona, Scranton, Reading, and Williamsport have encountered this same situation. Altoona now has an agreement providing for the city to receive a percentage of their authority’s revenue total as a lease payment from the authority. Perhaps a 10- to 20-year lease-to-own agreement using such a percentage of revenue would be a means of moving ownership to a joint authority and satisfying Lewistown’s revenue quest. That may be a hard sell to the outlying areas, but Lewistown has the upper hand with ownership.
A second option — the authority could make an upfront purchase of the water system from Lewistown Borough using a new bond issue. It could then reorganize into a new, non-profit regional authority with authority members appointed from each of the eight municipalities as mentioned earlier. This would give Lewistown its one-time payment and keep the water authority under local control. Both suggestions are sweet deals for Lewistown which has spent $0 since 1944 toward the authority.
Our public water system is a safe, reliable utility maintained by a dedicated staff of professionals. We are much too small of a community to be embroiled in this controversy, but we cannot allow Lewistown Borough Council to jeopardize this valuable community resource.
If council persists in its quest, it stands to alienate much of Mifflin County from “anything Lewistown” for years to come. They need to ask themselves if that is truly the legacy they want.