City Council gave Lancaster’s Public Works Department the go-ahead this week to apply for a grant to replace lead water pipes, but not before hearing from southeast city residents saying their neighborhood should be first in line for the work.
The $1.9 million grant would be used to inspect service lines running to homes in several blocks on Lancaster’s west side and replace those determined to be lead, at no cost to homeowners. There are about 300 service lines in the sector, and the city estimates 100 to 140 of them will require replacement.
The money comes from the federal government’s infrastructure initiative. It would come to Lancaster through the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or Pennvest, which is handling administration of the state’s allotment.
Southeast Lancaster is older than the west side and its residents have less financial margin. The city should have taken that into account, said Darlene Byrd, who leads the South Ann Concerned Neighbors organization.
Too often, when government funds a mandate, the money runs out but the mandate remains in force, leaving homeowners on the hook, she said.
Public Works Director Stephen Campbell assured Byrd that the southeast is a priority. The department has only begun to seek grant funding for its citywide effort to replace all lead service lines, and its intent is to target the census tracts with the highest poverty rates — which are in the southeast — “as early in the process as possible.”
Reiterating his explanation at last week’s City Council committee meeting, he said the west Lancaster sector was chosen due to expediency. The city had all the data there that it needed to complete the grant application by the Aug. 3 deadline. It simply wouldn’t have made sense to pass up that opportunity and forego the chance of obtaining $1.9 million, Campbell said.
In response to questions from Derrick Burch, community engagement coordinator at the Mix, Campbell said the water rate increase implemented at the start of the year is going toward operational expenses and other infrastructure work, not service line replacement.
The water system operates at cost, Campbell said. The rate increase, while substantial, was less than the percentage hike the city has seen in infrastructure project costs, which he termed “astronomical.”
Earlier this month, the city announced that water bills would be sent out monthly rather than quarterly beginning in August. Byrd questioned that decision during the public comment period at the end of council’s meeting.
Residents have been basing their household budgets on the expectation of a quarterly bill, and many are still struggling with the rate increase, she said. She worried that more households might end up incurring late fees or have their accounts turned over to collection agencies.
The change was made on short notice, she said, and while the city is enhancing its online payment option and encouraging residents to sign up, Byrd predicted it will cost City Hall more to complete 12 billing cycles rather than four.
City Council President Amanda Bakay said the changeover to monthly billing is part of the city’s shift away from usage estimates and toward billing only for actual usage. She said she’s hopeful that city households will welcome the option of paperless billing.
Campbell said that under the quarterly billing system, there had been a number of cases in which water customers incurred astronomical water bills due to water leaks that started early in the billing cycle and continued undetected for nearly three months.
“Leak detection is a huge part of why we went the way we did,” he said.