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FIASCO

Google’s definition:

“A thing that is a complete failure, especially in a ludicrous or humiliating way”.

Prologue

What follows is way too long.  It is the story of a meeting that culminated an effort to establish accountability for questionable claims made justifying the sale of New Garden's sewer system to Aqua Pennsylvania.  We think the result of the actual meeting was a total fiasco.  It just takes a lot of space to put all the events into context.

But the real lesson to be learned is how government officials can control the "process" to effect the outcome they want.  If you are in opposition to something local officials want to do, we recommend you at least scan through this and gain insight as to what you may be up against. 

The November 21, 2022 New Garden Township Meeting

 

Background

New Garden Township spent over four years from 2016 – 2020 selling its sewer system to Aqua Pennsylvania.  In hindsight, there were a number of questionable aspects to the sale that are documented elsewhere on this website:

 

#1 - The need for a huge rate increase without a sale (LINK)

 

#2 - The need for $12 million worth of upgrades if there was no sale (LINK)

 

#3 - The promise of a ten year rate cap that was broken before the sale (LINK)

 

#4 - A three step 30% rate increase in the middle of the sale process (LINK)

 

The sale was executed at the end of 2020.  Eight months later Aqua filed for a general rate increase.  In mid-2022 Aqua instituted jaw dropping rate increases.  Here is a picture of our rate increases: 

TOTAL RATE SHOCK!

The green line is the rate increase over what was in place when the sales contract was signed in 2016.  We had been told rates would go up almost 80% if the system was not sold.  We think that 80% was a scare tactic to justify selling the system to Aqua (LINK).  Well, the system was sold, but not before scuttling the rate cap (LINK).  Then Aqua raised rates for their "average customer" almost double New Garden’s 80% scare tactic. 

 

The red line is the increase at the time the higher rates went into effect.  The difference between the two lines is the 30% rate increase New Garden instituted starting in 2019.  The need and reason for that increase is also questionable (LINK).

We wanted answers

During the summer of 2022 when New Garden residents received their sewer bills, they were outraged.  One focus of this outrage was New Garden’s Board of Supervisors (BOS).  What we were seeing bore no resemblance to the promises made before the sale. 

 

In particular, one member of Keep Water Affordable (KWA) put a lot of pressure on the BOS to explain what happened.  We had dug into the records from the time of the sale and found that many of the pre-sale claims were questionable.  We wanted straight answers on these issues.  Ultimately, the BOS agreed to hold a special meeting on the issue. 

Meeting Plan

KWA worked extensively with the chairman of New Garden’s BOS to plan how the meeting would be conducted.  Between October 6th and November 14th, there were 15 phone calls totaling 3 ½ hours (per cell phone records).  Points made during these discussions included:

 

#1 - The usual format, listening to prepared comments from a few speakers followed by limited time for questions, would be a waste of time. 

 

#2 - We had uncovered irregularities in the public records that we believe need to be explained. 

 

#3 - We wanted an open dialogue with the principles of the sale negotiations. 

 

The BOS chairman and KWA finally agreed that KWA would lead the segment of the meeting that addressed the issues we were concerned about.  Here is a summary of our final understanding: 

 

#1 - KWA was best prepared to keep the discussion focused on the issues.  

#2 - After the routine business part of the meeting, the Chairman was to give an introduction and then turn the meeting over to KWA.


#3 - We planned to ask specific questions to get at the details behind the issues we raised. These questions were primarily aimed at the key players involved in the sale negotiation.  

#4 - Although the current Board also needs to be part of this discussion, the key players are best equipped to address the issues in detail. 

KWA Meeting Preparations

With the above plan in place, we went to work preparing our part of the meeting.  We created a PowerPoint slide deck designed to lead a discussion through the key issues.  We were aiming for a dialog with the individuals who were making claims that we did not find aligned with the data we had dug out.  Really, we felt we were loaded for bear. 

 

Here is the slide deck we prepared.  It really was not intended to be viewed on a stand along basis.  The dialog that went along with it is important.  Therefore, we have annotated key slides with some comments.  Those comments are found in red boxes in smaller font size.  Click the following button to download the charts:

New Garden Meeting Preparations

New Garden was also evidently doing some preparations as they requested a list of the things we wanted to address.  Here is what was sent 10 days before the meeting:

 

"Here are the MAIN ISSUES [emphasis added] we will pursue at the meeting on the 21st.  We will be prepared to ask specific questions aimed at these issues. Please call with any questions."

 

"1.  NGT claimed the sewer system needed a multi- million-dollar investment because of required capital improvements. We want to see the specifics of those improvements and their status."

 

"2.  To pay for these improvements, NGT estimated our rates needed to go up by 70%.  We want to see the details of this estimate. "

 

"3.  We want to see the financial status of the sewer system at the time of the sale. "

 

"4.  The original agreement with Aqua included a two-year rate freeze and eight more years with a 4% cap on annual growth. Why were the freeze and cap removed?"

 

"5.  Prior to sale closing NGT instituted a 30% rate increase over a three-year period.  With the sale imminent, why was this increase needed?"

 

"6.  NGT promised to create a “rate stabilization” fund to help offset increased rates under Aqua.  Does the Township intend to fulfill this promise?"

 

"7.  In the final approval of the sewer system sale, the PUC ordered Aqua to set a rate structure for NGT equal to the rates of Aqua’s Zone 1. In the final tariff, NGT rates far exceed those of Zone 1. As a party to the agreement , does NGT intend to take action to assure the agreement terms are met?”

Drumming Up Support For The Meeting

The big meeting was scheduled for a couple of weeks after the 2022 general election.  Since New Garden is a small township with only three polling places, we decided to promote the upcoming event at the polls on election day.  As people LEFT the polling places, we passed out the handbills at the right.

NGT Nov-2022 Meeting Handbill 24-Dec-2023.jpg

They were effective.  On the night of the meeting about 300 people came.  It was standing room only.  This article shows a picture of the crowd from the back of the room: (LINK)

The High Noon Bombshell

At 11:59 AM on the day of the meeting – just seven hours before it started – we got a call from the BOS chairman saying WE WERE BEING SHUT OUT OF THE MEETING.  We would not be allowed to run the part of the meeting focused on our concerns.  However,  we would have the opportunity to ask our questions during the questions part of the meeting. He assured us the meeting would go “until all your questions are answered”. 

The Meeting Structure According To New Garden

The New Garden BOS came to the meeting with this 19 slide PowerPoint presentation: 

Highlights include:

 

Chart 3 is what we think is a self serving statement about their role in the sale process. 

Chart 5 is an agenda. 

#1 - “Rules”

#2 - “KWA Questions”

#3-8 - Speakers addressing the “KWA Questions. 

#10 - Resident and ratepayer Q&A

 

Key observations about the “KWA Questions”. 

 

#1 - The term “Questions” is a mischaracterization of our intent. 

#2 - We sent a list of “Issues” that we wanted to reconcile public statements with conflicting actual data at the time those statements were made. 

 

#3 - That requires an airing of the public statement, the actual data and a dialog with the individuals involved. 

 

#4 - The New Garden BOS transformed those “Issues” into “Questions” and then enabled the responsible individuals to address them however they wanted.  They did not have to address the conflicting data or engage in any Q&A. 

KWA’s View Of The Meeting Structure

This is fairly simple:

 

#1 - The BOS framed the meeting as providing information about the sale and dispelling misinformation. 

 

#2 - The “Issues” were re-cast into “Questions”

 

#3 - The key individuals we wanted to engage on the “Issues” were then given unlimited time to “answer” the “Questions”.  No surprise, the standard party line was just repeated.  And, they took two hours to do it. 

 

#4 - After the presentations, residents were allowed to speak – with severe limitations:

 

     A) You could speak ONCE - three minutes maximum.  And, that time limit was strictly enforced.  That did not exactly fulfill the promise "until all your questions are answered".

 

     B)  No dialog allowed.  Make a statement and/or ask a question, then shut up and sit down. 

 

     C)  If a question was included, one of the key individuals could choose (or not) to respond however he wanted.  But, absolutely no back and forth was permitted.  And, of course, no follow up was permitted.

 

Not surprisingly, we did not find any of our “Issues” being addressed in any meaningful way. 

The “Moderator”

When we arrived at the meeting, we were surprised to find the meeting included a “moderator”.  This was an individual hired expressly for that purpose.  We found him curt, loud and abrasive – not someone you would want to be friends with.  However, he was VERY GOOD at his job.  As the meeting wore on and it was evident to those present that the “Issues” were not being addressed, there were some grumblings.  The “moderator” did not tolerate that kind of thing.  The next section has a link to a video of the first two hours of the meeting.  The segment from 16:17 to 18:49 shows some crowd discontent and the “moderator” in action. 

Video Record of the Meeting

Courtesy of Food and Water Watch most of the meeting is recorded on Facebook videos.  (Hint, you REALLY do NOT want to watch the whole thing, it is long and boring)

 

The presentation part of the meeting – about the first two hours: (LINK #1). 

 

The first part of the audience’s questions or statements:  (LINK #2

 

There is a bit of a gap, but this segment finishes the questions and statements segment:  (LINK #3). 

The Presentations

A summary of the presentations follow:

 

0:00 – 5:30 - Introduction by David Unger, a member of the BOS:  .  Included is a reading of the KWA “Questions”. 

 

5:30 – 45:50 – Spencer Andress (a key figure for New Garden in the sale) addresses questions on investment and rate increases.  He drones on for 40 minutes reading from a stack of papers.  The segment from 40:30 – 43:40 is worth watching.  The crowd recognizes what is happening and is tired of it – and, makes it known.  This is also a segment where you can see the “Moderator” in action.  

 

45:50 – 1:06:40 – Vince Pompo (the New Garden Solicitor for the sale) addresses the PUC approval process at length.  At 58:20 – 58:50 he specifically blames the Office of Consumer Advocate (OCA) for the dropping of the rate cap.  That is debunked here (LINK). 

 

1:06:40 – 1:11:30 – David Unger addresses a couple of questions about the use of sewer sale money.  Of special interest is the segment on funds for rate mitigation - one of our hot button issues.  We see this as "switcheroo #1" along with a side step shuffle.  It is a case of being asked one question, but answering another - It is covered in detail here (LINK). 

 

1:11:30 – 1:22:05 – New Garden Township hired a law firm to investigate potential legal issues with the sale of the New Garden sewer system.  This segment is their report.  This was important and the stories are told separately:

 

     #1 - New Garden's Solicitor had a legal conflict of interest in the sewer sale to Aqua.  And, it is apparent to us, that New Garden clearly does not want anyone to learn about the details (LINK). 

 

     #2 - At a previous public meeting New Garden had agreed to a general investigation into the transactions around the sewer sale.  This was to be the report on that investigation.  But, unfortunately, what we found was "Switcheroo #2" - and it was a big one: (LINK).

 

1:22:30 – 1:45:45 – It is Aqua’s turn.  Their Operations Manager essentially paints the condition of the system as being in a crisis at the date of acquisition and Aqua was the White Knight that swooped in and fixed it.  Their finance guy then talked about the PUC’s process for raising rates.  He essentially blamed the PUC for the large rate increase – Aqua just did what the PUC told it to do. 

Public Comments

There was a break and then those who wanted to speak were allowed three minutes each.  The basic rules were make your statement, then shut up and sit down.  No dialog, no follow up.

 

A total of 26 people spoke.  As is typical in these situations, everyone had something different to talk about.  One person even complained about an issue with their water – which had no connection to New Garden or Aqua. 

 

We think the meeting format was very successful in stifling all issues that could bring into question how the sale of the sewer system was conducted. 

FIASCO

Google’s synonyms:

“blunder”     "breakdown”            “debacle”           “disaster”     “embarrassment”     "failure”  

“farce”          “flop”                        “mess”            “stunt”          “washout”  

Conclusions

The above synonyms pretty well sum up what we think of the meeting.  Nobody had to account for their actions and representations leading up to the sale.  The meeting process saw to that.  The people in attendance saw through it and were not happy about the outcome. 

 

We think one of the most deceitful things about the meeting is how we were led to believe we were to lead the core of the discussion for the critical issues.  

 

Reflecting on New Garden’s preparation for the meeting, it was extensive.  We do not think there was any flip flop just before noon on the day of the meeting.  The very fact that a “Moderator” had been hired is indicative of the amount of advance planning that went into the meeting.  We think that the need for a “Moderator” also shows the focus New Garden had on controlling the flow of the meeting. 

 

The extensive preparation of the various speakers also attests to the meeting planning. 

In subsequent interactions with board members we found them very self righteous about how they had been responsive to our "questions".  They had provided answers on everything. 

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