During the many decades when consolidation was the rallying cry of reformers in Johnstown, much was made of the fact that Johnstown is surrounded by 19 separate municipalities.
The actual fragmentation is much worse when you include the authorities such as water, sewerage, parking, mass transit, airport, housing, recreation, redevelopment, economic development, arena operation, etc. Authorities derive their powers from the Municipal Authorities Act of 1945. Once created, authorities have a life of their own and are independent agencies of the commonwealth. The originating governments have only the power to appoint board members. There is no recall power.
Mostly, it all works pretty well. Some local authorities, such as the Cambria Somerset Authority, are visionary miracles of intergovernmental cooperation with immense public benefit.
The good side: Authorities are distanced from the tedious side of democracy. Board members are appointed, not elected, so they don’t have to be concerned with public approval. Authorities can make decisions that are unpopular but are thought to be in the public interest. They can incur debt, fix rates, charge fees and penalties, carry out improvements, hire and fire, and condemn property – all without voter approval. They can issue tax exempt bonds.
Qualified citizens, unwilling to stand for election, are more willing to serve on authority boards. An authority is focused on one service area.
The not-so-good side: The state Department of Community and Economic Development says, “There has been a great deal of debate among Authority officials, local elected officials, and members of the Pa. General Assembly over the adequacy of political accountability of municipal authorities. Allegations have been made that authorities operate without sufficient attention to the needs, wants and complaints of the citizens they serve and tend to act arbitrarily to accomplish their purposes.”
Authorities are not concerned with the overall health, safety and welfare of the public – but cities, boroughs, townships and counties are.
The local issue of pressure testing of residential sewer laterals provides a good example of different perspectives and responsibilities.
Sewer authorities point out that they have required their customers to pressure test sewer laterals, and it would be unfair for city residents to avoid those costs. However, Johnstown City Council must consider the total well-being of its city and that of its citizens before it forces homeowners and landlords into costs they can’t afford. With a declining population now at about 20,500 – less than half of whom own homes and those homes having a median value of only $44,100, and with more than one-third of the population living below the poverty level – imposing pressure-testing costs is preposterous. Is it fair to those citizens in other communities who have paid the costs? No.
But two wrongs do not make a right.
The state Department of Environmental Protection correctly wants to see sewage properly collected and treated.
Johnstown and surrounding communities are rebuilding their collection systems – as they should. The improved collection systems and reasonable efforts to eliminate inflow and infiltration of stormwater will reduce
design requirements for treatment plant improvements. Overdesign, as well as under-design, is to be avoided. Population trends are down, not up.
The DEP recommended the use of smoke and dye testing as effective means of eliminating roof drain connections – said to be 90 percent of the cause of stormwater inflow to the sanitary system. Such testing should be done by municipal and sewer authority personnel.
It is doubtful that anyone at the DEP envisioned local sewer authorities placing the burden of proof on homeowners, forcing homeowners into private, open-ended contracts to pressure test sewer laterals, including under-the-slab basement drains – and violating their Fourth Amendment rights to be secure in their homes.
When sewer authorities have reasonable grounds to believe that a public health hazard exists, they should obtain a warrant and investigate.
The Municipal Authorities Act contains no language that allows authorities to force citizens into open-ended contracts. That act contains no language that allows authorities to violate Fourth Amendment rights of citizens to be secure in their homes. Assuming powers that do not exist is a manifest and flagrant abuse of discretion. More accountability is needed.
The DEP wants communities to react to orders, not to overreact. No one at the state or federal level wants to destroy a community or make poor people poorer in order
to prove that a sanitary sewerage system can be made airtight. Local people should defend against such tyranny if it were to exist – not be the cause of it.
Edward Smith of Jackson Township is a retired city and county manager. He is chairman of the Pennsylvania Homeowners Association.