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The power struggle for Pa.’s drinking water


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
April 2, 2021
Private water, struggling students, eviction portraits, family trauma, prison tax, and Amtrak's Pennsylvania plan. It's Friday, looks like we made it.
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There is a push underway to privatize Chester's water authority — but not to rescue the system, a well-run and award-winning one at that. 

Instead, it's an attempt to bolster the municipality's beleaguered finances, a move desirable because of the hundreds of millions of dollars a sale would command, and one made possible by special-interest legislation enacted by state lawmakers five years ago.

While a sale would mean a big municipal payday, Stefan Roots, a community blogger and Chester City Council candidate, told The American Prospect magazine consumer rates could triple overnight, adding, "That’s a lot to ask for a poor community."

While this level of private-sector interest in public utilities might seem unusual, it isn't — especially since Pennsylvania lawmakers made such sales more appealing to buyers and distressed sellers alike. 

THE CONTEXT: In 2016, Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law Act 12, which allowed public utilities to be sold at fair market value rather than their depreciated value, The American Prospect reports. A subsequent change struck out a prohibition on sales of public utilities by distressed municipalities. Bidding for Chester's strategically located water system started soon after.

In 2019, an alternative option emerged in the form of a $60 million bailout of Chester by the Chester Water Authority. In exchange for paying off the city's debt, Chester would agree not to sell the water system for the next 40 years. Aqua, a private water company, promptly sued, and the city of Chester also had misgivings. A whirlwind of litigation ensued.

The web of interests here is tangled but, again, not unusual. And that's partly because, as The American Prospect notes, Pennsylvania's sheer volume of municipally owned utilities and distressed municipalities make it "a public-utility privatization petri dish," with hard lessons learned already. Just look at Pittsburgh


"The borough council is appalled and outraged by this conduct." 

—Mansfield Borough Council on a racist, sexist, and inflammatory Tik Tok video posted by an officer from inside his patrol car
VACCINE UPDATE: Pfizer says its COVID-19 vaccine is 100% effective in children ages 12 to 15. The company plans to submit the data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "in the coming weeks" and hopes to start vaccinating children before the next school year. For vaccine providers, check Spotlight PA's map and county-by-county listing.
POST IT: A line of turtles sunning themselves at Wildwood Park in Harrisburg. Thanks, Carol D.Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us at @spotlightpennsylvania.
PANDEMIC EFFECT: Three in five college students in Pennsylvania and beyond faced food and housing insecurity last year, a survey by The Hope Center for College Community and Justice at Temple University found. The yearlong study included 195,000 students at colleges and universities around Pennsylvania and across the country. WHYY reports the number experiencing housing insecurity rose by almost 10% from 2019.

CRISIS HOMES: Four Allegheny County households let a PublicSource photographer into their homes to document their struggle to stay housed. The result is a powerful series of portraits driving home the humanity of America's ongoing housing crisis. Pennsylvania is taking applications for a new round of emergency rent relief now. And while a federal eviction ban has been extended through June, loopholes persist. 

TRAUMA CLEANING: Philadelphia police are responsible for collecting evidence at scenes of gun violence. But it's often left to the families to clean up what's left behind — an emotional and financial burden. Now, as gun violence soars, The Inquirer reports on a push that's underway to get the city to clean up the scenes before families see them and to train officers to better communicate with the trauma-stricken

'POOR TAX': For every dollar an Erie County inmate received from loved ones, the county kept 75 cents to cover costs. Today, it's 50-50, with county council lowering the fee from 75% to 50% in a February compromise. Some members aren't satisfied, though, calling it a "poor tax" and draconian "behavior modification tool" that needs to be lowered more or abolished altogether, Erie Times-News reports. 

EXTRA HELP: A successful lawsuit brought by two women who receive food stamps in Pennsylvania means thousands of households in the state will see $712 million in additional benefits, WESA reports. "The pandemic has greatly increased hunger, and this will help parents put food on the table for their children," an attorney in the case said.

VISION BOARD: Amtrak's wish list includes new or improved connections from Allentown and Scranton to NYC, Reading to Philly, Pittsburgh to Cleveland, and Erie to Buffalo, Detroit, and Toronto by 2035, City Paper reports. Amtrak announced the push hours after President Joe Biden unveiled his big infrastructure pitch.

FIXER UPPER: A section of the Pennsylvania Capitol that hasn't been overhauled in more than a century is about to get a renovation, completing a project that began in the 1980s. The governor’s 10-room office suite is getting a $1.48 million overhaul, per PennLive, with work expected to last through next winter and no special budget allocation needed.

SELFIE SZN: Cherry blossom photo ops are coming fast. The northeastern rite of spring is due to peak any day now in the Philadelphia area. Sandi Polyakov, head gardener of the Japan American Society of Greater Philadelphia, told The Inquirer to expect the climax on April 10, with blooms happening over the next two weeks. Just remember: They go quickly.

FILLING GAPS: Pitt School of Medicine alum Ala Stanford is countering the racism embedded in America's health-care system during a pandemic that has highlighted stark racial disparities anew. With her Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, Stanford does pop-up COVID-19 testing and gets the word out with Instagram, TikTok, and plenty of dancing, Pitt Med magazine writes.

BEER HERE: Pennsylvania is home to three of the top breweries in the country, PhillyVoice reports. The U.S. Brewers Association unveiled the top 50 brewing companies based on sales, and had Pottsville's Yuengling at the No. 1 craft brewery spot, Downingtown's Victory at No. 8, and Hershey's Tröegs at No. 20.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Yesterday's answer: Adjudicated

Congrats to our daily winners: Mary Ellen T., Bob R., Neal W., Michael S., Dixie S., Susan D., Elizabeth F., David I., Lydia T., Irene R., Bette G., Jason B., Craig W., Yvette R., Becky C., Dianne K., Bill C., Beth T., Keith F., Mark O., Elaine C., Chris M., Dennis M., Elizabeth W., Suzanne S., Patricia R., Tish M., Lex M., Tom M., Kim C., Jill A., Patty D., Karen W., Paul H., David W., Diane P., Jessica K., Joel S., Carol D., Patricia K., Laura B., George S., Mary Kay M., Sue B., James B., Daniel M., Christine M., Kevin H., Alice B., Parker B., George L., Rick D., Marsha B., and Anne R.
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