Even without Somerset County commissioners present, more than 150 people gathered at a forum Wednesday night to learn more about proposals to move water through the northern part of the county into Somerset Borough.

Attendees stood in lines to ask three, four and five questions each until after 10 p.m.

On a stage next to three empty chairs, Greater Johnstown Water Authority officials gave a presentation and offered handouts showing their proposed pipeline routes, as well as a comparison of their $8.5 million plan, compared with the $23.9 million plan commissioners propose. The commissioners’ Quemahoning Pipeline system would include an extension past Somerset into Friedens.

The commissioners – Jim Marker, Pam Tokar-Ickes and Brad Cober – declined an invitation to attend, but county Solicitor Dan Rullo said the Johnstown supplier has been bent on undermining the county’s plans all along.

Rullo said the forum’s timing could hinder commissioners’ efforts to obtain grant funding that would bridge a gap of more than $16 million in the proposed line’s finance package.

“We did not want to have this controversy,” Rullo said. “Our plan is in a critical stage. It cannot be more critical than it is right now.”

Rullo also questioned why the Johnstown authority was pitching its ideas after Somerset Borough Council turned down an offer to negotiate with Greater Johnstown.

“They said no,” Rullo said. “(Greater Johnstown) doesn’t have a customer.”

Officials from the Johnstown supplier argued that they are willing to set a water rate – $2.25 per thousand gallons – while commissioners are waiting to give a final price-tag until their funding package is in place. Their target is around the same price tag.

“Ours is written in stone,” said authority Chairman Ed Cernic Sr. “We’re here to show our proposal.”

Rullo and Jon Wahl, an engineer who worked on the county’s pipeline design, said they have yet to see a proposal from Greater Johnstown, whose members maintained they have been pushing for dialogue with commissioners for years.

“I was involved with correspondence (in 2003),” Wahl said. “The commissioners are still waiting on that proposal.”

The discrepancy in both proposals’ prices raised questions.

“I’m having trouble putting the numbers together,” Mike Boland of Bakersville said. “Why is (Greater Johnstown’s plan) so much cheaper?”

Besides excluding treatment-plant costs, the Johnstown supplier would use a 12-inch PVC pipeline, while commissioners are planning to install a pricier 18-inch pipeline made of ductile iron.

Wahl said the cheaper option would compromise the county’s future, and that the larger line is what the county needs for growth.

“This project is not about us,” Wahl said. “It’s about our children and our children’s children.

“We could have cheapened things,” he added. “We could have cut costs.”

Ed Schmitt, the Johnstown authority’s engineer, said the PVC pipe has worked well in other projects, and that a 12-inch line could carry more than 2 million gallons a day with additional storage tanks.

When another person asked about fire hydrants, Schmitt said the authority’s proposal could include as many hydrants as the commissioners’ plan, at the same $8.5 million cost.

The authority also is offering to build a pipeline and hand it over to the county.

“There are options available for compromise,” Cernic said.

Rullo said he and commissioners are suspicious of the authority’s motives and past the point of debating which is best. The county already has obtained state permits.

“County commissioners have one allegiance – that’s their constituents here in Somerset County,” he said. “This plan needs to be done. It needs to move forward.”

Kecia Bal can be reached at 445-5103 or kbal@tribdem.com.

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