It’s not just about the city of Johnstown, it’s about the whole Johnstown region.
That was a message delivered by Mayor Frank Janakovic and City Manager Kristen Denne during the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce’s State of the City address, sponsored by Wessel & Co., on Thursday morning.
They discussed how past, present and future successes and struggles are shared by communities throughout the area when speaking inside the Holiday Inn Johnstown-Downtown.
Janakovic even mentioned how he hopes more interconnectedness develops.
“The dirty word: ‘consolidation.’ I would love to see it, but I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime. But consolidation is the way to go whether that’s consolidation of fire companies or boroughs and townships,” the mayor said.
“If you look at Johnstown, where have you ever seen a city completely surround a borough or township or those particulars? As I stand here today as mayor, I would give up being mayor tomorrow if we could work out a group council that could take care of our area and work together. So, I’m going to start promoting that. Whether it goes anywhere or not, I think that word needs to be used. And if it isn’t with cities and boroughs and townships, it needs to be with our workforces, with our fire, with our police, those sorts of things.”
He mentioned some of the challenges Johnstown faces: a dwindling population, raising funds when half of the city’s properties are tax exempt, legacy costs, blighted properties.
But Janakovic trumpeted positives, too, such as the work done by nonprofit groups, new business development, cultural history, outdoor recreation and regional cooperation.
“We need to change the perception of Johnstown and the reality that’s there,” he said.
“Unfortunately, I see a lot of negativism out there right now. They’re down on the city and things. Believe me, I grew up in the city, and I think it’s a great city. Is it ever going to be the city of the ’60s? Probably not. But we have an opportunity to make this city what we want to make it, and that means rolling up our sleeves, doing what we need to do to make this city a vibrant city again.”
Denne focused much of her presentation on the region’s ongoing sewer improvement project that involves 20 municipalities connected to the Johns-town Redevelopment Authority’s system.
In July 2010, the city entered into a consent agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection tha requires Johnstown to eliminate all sanitary sewer overflows from its system by Dec. 31, 2022, or face fines that could reach tens of thousands of dollars per day, according to the city manager. The problem has existed for decades, and Denne said there is a document from 1915 that instructed city officials back then to fix issues with the sewer system.
To emphasize the urgency of the situation, Denne showed a photo of a swimming pool that holds more than a million gallons of water and compared it with the local overflows.
“Does anyone understand why the DEP’s a little bit ticked at us right now? Fifty of those pools of literally your toilet – we’re talking raw sewage, untreated – is going into your waterways during the wet weather occurrences.
“We’re trying to promote this region as a tourism region, natural resources to utilize. ... If we’re taking 50 of these – and that could be on a single day – and dumping it into those rivers, do you want to put your kids on an inner tube? What’s even sadder is this now goes downstream and people are using that for their drinking water and having to filter and clean it. We are in violation and we are breaking the law, and we have been since 1915,” Denne said.
DEP officials required properties attached to the city’s system to pass smoke and/or dye testing, which many could do without needing to get any work done.
Feeling those tests were inadequate to achieve the goal of eliminating the overflows, city council decided to require all systems pass a more strenuous air pressure test. Most local private systems, especially those using terra cotta pipes, will not pass without costly repairs or replacement.
The city’s engineering firm, The EADS Group, said the average cost is about $3,000.
If the city scrapped its current plan and, instead, decided to expand the Dornick Point Sewage Treatment Plant at a cost of about $600 million, it could lead to customers receiving monthly sewer bills in excess of $200 for the duration of a 30-year bond, according to Denne.
An organized protest movement has arisen against the pressure test requirement. A petition with more than 900 signatures has been circulated.
Protests have occurred outside City Hall. On Wednesday, some people wore protest signs during a City Council meeting.
“I’m okay with that because (our decision) is the right thing to do,” Denne said. “I told council this yesterday, nobody is ever going to thank you for what you did do – they’ll just say what you didn’t do – in politics. Because, as I always say, the same people that are at your coronation are the same people that will be at your beheading; everybody loves the show. And, right now, they want to behead us, but nobody understands that we’re preventing them from literally one of the biggest economic disasters that this city could see and this region.”
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.