Montco Town Weighs Selling Troubled Sewer System

Cheltenham Township is deciding whether to sell off its troubled sewer system, which is threatening to cost residents big bucks for repairs. (Published Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016)

Cheltenham Township commissioners took the first step Wednesday night toward the possible sale of the municipality's troubled sewer system.

The governing body voted unanimously to have township officials draw up a "request for qualifications," or RFQ, that will gauge interest from outside entities to purchase and operate the miles of sewer lines as a public utility. A resolution to issue the RFQ is expected to be introduced next month.

"This is one of a variety of options the commissioners are taking under consideration," Commissioner Drew Sharkey told residents at the monthly Public Works Committee meeting. "This is an effort to find out if this is a viable option or not."

The Board committee also tabled a vote -- for the second time since May -- on legislation that would begin mandatory inspections of all private sewer laterals and raise the fee for those lateral inspections "to account for additional personnel time and expenses required to inspect."

The board, he said, will instead hold a special hearing Sept. 28 on Cheltenham's massive infrastructure headache.

Two months ago, township Manager Bryan Havir told NBC10.com that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has demanded Cheltenham make widespread upgrades to its sewer system. The system is a century old. Miles of public sewer mains and thousands of private sewer laterals are either defective or overwhelmed during storms and in immediate need of replacement.

Havir estimated that costs could be as much as $8 million a year for the next decade for "work being done in the public right-of-way as well as the inspection work" on private property sewer laterals.

At the time in late May, the township planned to issue a longterm plan for inspecting the sewer laterals of every property owner in Cheltenham, starting with Cheltenham Village and Glenside. Any laterals that failed inspection would need to be replaced within 60 to 90 days.

After NBC10.com reported on the proposed ordinance and groups of residents began questioning the financial burden on homeowners to replace costly underground pipes on their property, the township decided to table legislation.

Yet state DEP officials have continued to demand that Cheltenham address an issue that has simmered at the local level for the last several years. Havir said that the township already has spent millions since 2010 on certain fixes.

Township engineer Amy Montgomery said at the meeting Wednesday that Cheltenham Village and Glenside will still be the first neighborhoods where property owners' laterals would be inspected once the process begins.

She and members of the township Board promised more details about an inspection schedule at the meeting later next month.

Possibly selling off the sewer system, however, is part of a larger discussion about how to manage a vital and expensive infrastructure, Sharkey said.

"We all have aspirations of revitalizing business districts, improving services, and things of that nature," Sharkey said. "But obviously, this is taking up a great deal of time. And it gets to a national issue of the need to invest in our infrastructure."

"All municipalities need to make sure our infrastructure is being maintained and continuously improved."