LEHIGH COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS
Lehigh County Authority’s effort to have its charter extended to 50 years collapsed April 11 when Lehigh County Commissioners voted 6-3 to reject a proposed amendment to LCA’s articles of incorporation.
The decision seemed to catch LCA’s CEO Liesel M. Gross, by surprise. Gross had spoken to the commissioners in support of the resolution.
“I want to know the path forward,” Gross said to commissioners following the vote to deny the amendment extending the water and sewer authority’s charter.
Commissioner Marc Grammes had earlier spoken in support of the amendment, focusing on his recent visits to 13 facilities of the LCA and talking with some of the workers for the authority, whom he referred to as “162 awesome employees.” He also added his name as co-sponsor of the resolution, which came to the floor sponsored by Commissioner Nathan Brown.
Gross took the lectern to address the commissioners. She said a goal of the LCA was to improve transparency and forge a stronger relationship with the public and “with you, the board of commissioners.”
Gross had, at last month’s meeting, pitched the charter extension as being needed to improve the authority’s ability to finance future capital improvements in the system’s infrastructure.
Fundamental to the concerns of the commissioners was the analysis presented by Joe Hilliard, who had criticized nearly all aspects of the LCA’s administration and finances. However, he stopped short of being critical of the employees saying, “This has nothing to do with employees.
“This issue is about financial status,” Hilliard said. “There’s no sense of urgency here. They [the LCA] want to turn to a rich uncle for help. They have a financial sinkhole opening up under them.”
Commission President Marty Nothstein responded, “It sure looks like it to me.”
“They’re going to have to skyrocket rates, which will crush Allentown,” Hilliard said.
“These are real numbers and they are not good numbers,” Nothstein said. “This is not a decision we have to rush into.”
Commissioner Brad Osborne offered, “LCA is working hard to improve. We have to get this right. Our board does not have the authority to make any changes.” He was referring to changes to the resolution to extend the LCA’s charter.
Commissioner Amy Zanelli said she was not satisfied with LCA’s answers to previous questions. “My vote tonight will be no.”
The vote opposing the resolution which would have extended the LCA’s charter to 50 years included: Brown, Dr. Percy Dougherty, Nothstein, Amanda Holt, Osborne and Zanelli. Those for the extension included Geoff Brace, Grammes and Dan Hartzell.
Hartzell said in an interview he saw the testimony against the extension as a “rehash” of the 2013 contract, which leased the Allentown Water Works to LCA, which he said was then seen as a bailout of Allentown’s failing fiscal situation at the time.
“We will have to extend the LCA’s charter at some point,” Hartzell said. He said the commissioners had extended the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority’s charter for many of the same reasons.
The next day, when asked for a statement about the impact of the decision, Gross released the following statement:
“While last night’s decision was not the outcome we had hoped for, it is an indication that the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners and Lehigh County Authority have a great opportunity to work together to develop a stronger relationship as we work through what the next steps will be. For LCA, the immediate concern is that we must complete project financing and debt refinancing without the benefit of the flexibility that a charter extension would have offered. The impact is expected to be manageable, however, since we still have 30 years available in our term to work within.
“The greater concern is how to address significant challenges that lie ahead related to investing in the replacement and renewal of aging infrastructure, when we already face a high debt burden. LCA is not alone. This is a national issue, and the American Water Works Association currently anticipates water and sewer rate increases will outpace inflation for many years into the future while utilities address the nearly $1 trillion of infrastructure work that needs to be completed. For LCA, this work requires careful management of financial resources, and we look forward to working with the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners as a partner in developing solutions that allow us to move forward.”
LCA is the water and sewer authority that distributes potable water to the public and operates the sewerage system used by many communities in the Lehigh Valley, including Allentown. The system collects sewage from homes and businesses.
In a separate action, the commissioners expressed solidarity and support for the Lehigh Valley Ambassadors for Organ and Tissue Donation that supports organ donations by citizens through an organ donor program. The commissioners officially designated April as Donate Life Month.
Makala Ashmar, the daughter of the late Samir Ashmar, was a leader in getting the designation by the commissioners. Samir Ashmar was a former supervisor for Upper Macungie Township. He was also active in the fire department, according to his daughter and died of a heart attack after a fire Nov. 20, 2014. She said his cornea and tissue were donated.
In other business, the commissioners appointed Arland Schantz to the Lehigh County Conservation District, Miriam Huertas to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission and Jacob D. Willis to the Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities Board. William Leiner Jr. was reappointed to the board.
Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong announced plans to light the Soldier’s and Sailor’s monument located at Seventh Street and Hamilton Boulevard with a creative lighting scheme that will enhance the monument’s visual appeal at the renovated city center. There will be a ceremony in the evening of May 24 to light the monument.
Armstrong introduced Jane Heft, vice president and director of project design for City Center Investment Corporation; Heft is responsible for the project.
Armstrong said Lehigh County owns the monument, which was dedicated in 1889.