As part of a federal Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, the government is tightening nitrogen and phosphorous restrictions on treatment plants throughout the Bay's watershed, forcing many plants to undertake expensive upgrades.
"The dollars needed are substantial and real," said Peter Schmidt, chairman of the York City Sewer Authority, at a Tuesday morning event at the treatment plant.
A $10 million renovation project at the plant is already under way, and the Chesapeake compliance upgrades will run another $6 to $10 million. The sewer authority also will begin next year on a $3.5 million project to replace a mile of pipe under the Codorus Creek.
The choice: What voters must decide is whether they want to pay for the upgrades locally in the form of significant rate hikes, or to spread the financial burden to taxpayers around the state by approving the bond, Schmidt said. Either way, the upgrades are moving forward.
The York City treatment plant services York, Manchester, West Manchester and Spring Garden townships; West York and North York boroughs; and York City. The facility also has a load-sharing agreement with Springettsbury Township.
The referendum question will be on Tuesday's general election ballot.
The question doesn't specifically mention the Chesapeake Bay program, but the bulk of the $400 million will go to treatment plants being forced to upgrade, said Teresa Candori, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Many of the state's sewer and water systems are in dire need of repair, said John Hanger, acting secretary of the state DEP.
"We have infrastructure that's 50, 60, 70, 80 years (old) or more," he said. "In some cases, I'm afraid to say, it's just plumb worn out. Some of these sewer lines and water lines seem to leak more water than they carry at times."
Jobs, too: Approving the bond would help fund necessary improvements, and it could create up to 12,000 jobs, he said.
On the other hand, "If you don't vote for the $400 million bond question, then be ready to pay higher water and sewer bills," he said.
Hanger promised that the state can afford the bond. Pennsylvania's debt level fluctuates regularly as it issues and pays off bonds, and the $400 million sewer bond "will not stress the state budget," he said.
That means Pennsylvanians shouldn't expect a tax hike if the referendum passes, Candori said. "Voting for this does not mean voting for a tax increase."
Getting a piece: But even if the bond is approved, rate payers could end up footing the bill for a substantial portion of the improvement costs.
"It's going to be very competitive," Schmidt said of securing a piece of the $400 million. Nearly 200 treatment plants in the Bay's watershed must upgrade to meet the new federal standards, and other sewer and water authorities will be competing for a slice of the bond money, too.
"We like to think that we've got a really good story to tell and a demonstrated need, but we can't fool ourselves. There are a lot of other plants that are equally deserving," Schmidt said.
The bond money would be administered by the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or Pennvest. If voters approve the referendum, Pennvest could begin deciding who gets how much in January.
Without any state assistance, the improvements to the York City treatment plant will add to the sewer authority's debt by 40 percent, Schmidt said. That would be passed on to customers in the form of rate hikes, though he said he could not estimate how much rates would increase.
-- Reach Peter Mergen thaler at 505-5439 or pmer email@example.com m.