Petersburg council votes to delay privatizing water department t - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

Petersburg council votes to delay privatizing water department that needs $95M

Source: NBC12 Source: NBC12

Peterburg City Council voted on Tuesday night to delay entering into negotiations to privatize the water department.

The council voted against the suggestion of the Robert Bobb Group, hired to assist Petersburg in dealing with their financial troubles. They were considering the privatization of the utility system and were looking at two proposals.

Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell says they need to come up with millions of dollars to make capital improvements necessary to maintain the city’s water and wastewater systems. He says the required overhaul would cost as much as $51 million over five years, plus an additional $44 million to pay the city's portion of capital improvements to the water (ARWA) and wastewater (SCCWA) authorities.

"We have to be proactive in identifying a strategy to update and stabilize a chronically neglected system where parts of the system date back to the 1800s," said Tyrrell. 

Tyrrell says over the last two decades, there has not been funding for maintenance and repairs - which has lead to the "urgent position" the city is in. In the last few years, City Council approved but never fully implemented rate hikes.

"Our old systems have not been taken care of as they should have been," said Interim Director of Public Works and Utilities Daniel Harrison. "As a result, we are paying to treat one billion gallons of rainwater a year that is flowing into our wastewater system."

Tyrrell says the capital improvements "have to be paid for regardless of whether the utility is privatized."

"We must keep in mind privatization is only one of the options we are exploring," said Tyrrell.

It was a standing room only crowd Tuesday night as Petersburg neighbors made a passionate plea not to privatize the city's water department.

With signs in hand, the community flooded the council meeting in protest of the idea to sell Petersburg’s aging water infrastructure - a system which could cost a whopping $95 million to repair.

This is a case where the people spoke and their leaders listened, despite the recommendation of the group those same leaders hired to turn the city around.

"What will happen if we wake up one morning, turn the water on, serve it to our children and we become like Flint, Michigan," said neighbor Michael Edwards.

City leaders gave residents an opportunity to weigh in and they took full advantage of it.

"Do not make a deal with the devil," another neighbor said, meeting applause from the crowd.

At some points, residents even went over the time allotted for public comment.

"Can you please respect the time constraints we have tonight?" council President Sam Parham asked a speaker.

"Sir, you need to respect my tax dollars," he responded.

Every single person to address council was against the idea to privatize the water department, including the city's former City Attorney Michael Packer.

"Rates are going to go up. People who are poor are not going to be able to afford water," he said.

It comes as Petersburg learns the cold truth.

"The water system is in very bad shape," Consultant Robert Bobb said.

Bobb says the cost to improve the aging water structure is $95 million. Two companies submitted bids to take over the system, but neighbors are worried about an outside business coming in to take control of what the city has done for years.

"When a municipality has a problem, it has to look that problem straight in the eye, recognize that you have a problem and seek the options to fix the problem," Bobb said.

In the end, council sided with the public, agreeing to delay the idea for now.

"Are you disappointed they didn’t take your recommendation?" NBC 12 asked Bobb.

"I'm not disappointed at all…We propose and they dispose," he said.

"When Robert Bobb leaves, we’re still here. We’re the ones who have to deal with this once this is over," Edwards said.

The two companies looking to buy the water department are Aqua and Virginia American Water. Petersburg will now create a committee of citizens to work with the city to research the best way forward.

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