OPINION: Millcreek authority seeks to stave off its own demise [Erie Times-News, Pa. :: ]
(Erie Times-News (PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) May 11--With two supervisors' votes looking like pretty good bets, a deal to fold the Millcreek Township Water Authority's system into the Erie Water Works has been gaining momentum.
John Groh's lopsided victory over longtime Supervisor Joseph Kujawa in November gave Supervisor Richard Figaski the ally he needed to move the issue forward. The third supervisor, Brian McGrath, has continued to drag his heels as best he can.
Now that Millcreek's balance of power has been reset, the Water Authority board has decided to take a run at putting some heat on Figaski and Groh. And it's doing it with ratepayers' money.
The authority engaged the Engel O'Neill advertising agency to make its case to Millcreek residents and try to get them to tell supervisors to back off. Engel O'Neill said it had billed the authority about $3,000 as of Tuesday, at its standard rates of $85 to $125 an hour.
A second firm, Moore Research Services Inc. of Erie, said it had billed the authority about $5,900. Moore conducted focus group research on water-related issues with Millcreek residents.
The results began playing out Wednesday in advertisements in the Erie Times-News and on local television. The authority also put up an advocacy website, www.whykeepourauthority.com, and will use direct mail pieces as well.
The public opinion campaign came to light a day earlier at the weekly supervisors' meeting, when Figaski and Groh voted over McGrath's opposition to direct township Solicitor Evan Adair to determine whether the Water Authority violated the state Sunshine Act in setting it in motion.
The resolution also authorizes Adair to push the matter in court if he finds the authority skirted the Sunshine Act. The law provides for criminal and civil sanctions, including reversing public action taken outside of the act's strictures.
This comes as Millcreek supervisors and Erie Water Works officials are moving toward negotiating the sale of the authority's assets. The next step will be to commission an independent valuation of those assets.
The thrust of the ad campaign and website seems to be to sow public doubt by packaging the facts and arguments of the matter in ominous fashion. A recurring theme is Millcreek giving up control to outsiders, an appeal to a municipal version of sovereignty.
The website, for example, conflates oversight of the water utility with township control of its schools, parks and roads. At one point it really goes for broke: "An analogy could be made that the city of Erie should control and administer the Millcreek Police Department."
That analogy has been made, when Kujawa summoned the same boogeyman a few years back as Figaski was pushing to study changing Millcreek's form of government, in part as a cost-cutting measure. If Figaski really wanted to save money, Kujawa said then, he should advocate merging the Millcreek Police Department with the Erie Bureau of Police.
The website, by the way, lists only six of the Water Authority's seven board members. Missing is George Hazuda, whose appointment to the board in January was an early sign that Groh and Figaski might team up to rattle Millcreek's status quo.
This is all an extension of one of the most contentious issues of recent years in Millcreek. It centered on the fact that for a long time Millcreek Township Water Authority customers paid sharply higher rates than township residents served directly by the Erie Water Works.
Frustration with the Water Authority and supervisors kept growing as years passed and nothing got done. The grievances coalesced into a citizens' group, Cheaper Cleaner Water, which really turned up the heat.
The group and its supporters gained a foothold on the Board of Supervisors in the 2009 election. Figaski, who ran on the issue, knocked off incumbent Supervisor Larry Curtis in a result widely attributed to the water flap.
The activists had been pushing for equalizing rates via putting the Water Authority out of business and combining the Millcreek system with the Erie Water Works, which already serves well more than half of the township. What the pressure they brought to bear produced instead, with McGrath's and Kujawa's backing, was the authority bringing its rates into line by refinancing and extending its debt.
That relieved the worst of the political pressure. One question that remains in the current context is how much bad blood lingers.
In selling its continued existence to its own customer base, the Water Authority is dealing with people it spent years doing a rather thorough job of stonewalling and alienating. Perhaps that's why it has handed the pitch off to people who do it for a living.
Write to Pat Howard at 205 W. 12th St., Erie, PA 16534, or e-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNhoward.
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