The High Cost of Solving Difficult Problems in Allentown

Twenty years ago, I was drawn to apply for a job at Lehigh County Authority. Until then I had taken my tap water for granted, but it was the team’s dedication and the opportunity to serve my community that made it seem like a cool place to work.

Over the next two decades, I learned about all the work that goes into providing reliable, safe drinking water and responsible wastewater service to our region. LCA’s employees work 24/7 doing some of the dirtiest, thankless jobs to ensure that water flows when you turn the tap, and that the waste disappears from sight when you flush. As one co-worker often tells me, what we do is “magic” for most citizens.

But this silent service is too important to remain silent moving forward. Across the nation, the need to invest in our water and sewer infrastructure is growing to a crisis level. The American Water Works Association estimates more than $1 trillion is needed over the next two decades to replace aging systems. As a result, water and sewer rates everywhere will climb, outpacing inflation for the foreseeable future. This is the price of neglect or of progress, depending on your point of view. Regardless, it is unavoidable.

Locally, much has been said lately about the state of LCA’s affairs. Under this level of scrutiny, we try to stay positive and forward-thinking, because LCA is on the right path despite the challenges we face. As a municipal authority, LCA is a nonprofit, independent, public organization. Each of these attributes helps determine how we make decisions.

•LCA operates independently, outside the political arena, so our professional staff and appointed, unpaid board members can take a long-term view of the services we provide.

•As a public organization, everything we do is open to you and must withstand the test of public scrutiny, including our board meetings and financials.

In Allentown, LCA operates the water and sewer systems under the terms of a 50-year lease agreement, which was devised by city leaders in 2012 to address their pension problem. Regardless of current controversy, LCA believes a nonprofit, independent, public organization can still provide the best long-term value in this venture.

This doesn’t mean that it will be easy, or that paying these debts won’t cost the citizens of Allentown. It will cost a lot, and LCA recognizes that increasing your water and sewer bills to pay this high debt burden is a lot to bear. But we can’t ignore problems simply because solving them is difficult.

And, LCA taking action to solve problems doesn’t mean we are in a financial crisis. Increasing rates now is the most proactive decision we could devise to address the challenges in Allentown.

On top of paying this high debt burden from the lease, we must repair and replace aging treatment systems, equipment and infrastructure — work that is long overdue. LCA expects the Allentown systems will need $1.3 billion worth of system improvements over the next 45 years, and we are starting today to prepare for improvements that are required to protect the public’s health.

Of course all communities that use the Allentown water and sewer treatment facilities will help pay for these projects through their rates over time, not just Allentown citizens. The rate increase in Allentown today is dramatic and unpleasant primarily because of the heavy lease debt burden added on top of all the system improvements that are needed.

Are there other ways to raise the revenue needed to pay city debt? Certainly there are other rate structures that could work better for Allentown customers, but developing those options requires an open dialogue and a true desire for solutions among community leaders. LCA welcomes such discussions!

Many have asked, what do the citizens of Allentown get for the rising cost of service?

To that question, I draw from my experience with the dedicated employees of LCA, who are also your friends and neighbors: You get the best service LCA can provide. You get the commitment of our organization to be responsible caretakers of your water and sewer systems. You have an open invitation to be part of the solution, ask questions and offer constructive ideas. And you have our absolute dedication to protecting the well-being of current and future generations of water users in Allentown.

Liesel Gross
Chief executive officer, Lehigh County Authority