An ongoing, citywide, state-mandated sewer project continues to be one of the most challenging, costly and divisive issues in the recent history of Johnstown and its council.
Streets have been excavated. Costs in the millions of dollars have been incurred.
Some residents have financially struggled to pay for the portion of the work on their properties. Deadlines have – on occasion – been missed. And City Council meetings have degenerated into contentious arguments – filled with interruptions, raised voices and insults – over the subject.
All with a Dec. 31, 2022, deadline in place for the city to reduce flows to the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority-owned Dornick Point Sewage Treatment Plant to under 625 gallons per day per equivalent dwelling unit or face the possibility of fines, as per a consent agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
“It’s painful,” Deputy Mayor Marie Mock said. “It’s a painful experience. It’s painful. There’s no other way to put it. It’s not pleasant.”
Johnstown is one of 20 Dornick-connected municipalities that entered their own respective agreements with DEP to upgrade their systems.
“Nobody wants to do it,” Mock said. “We’re not the only municipality doing this or have done it or dealing with the problems. There are municipalities that are as financially strapped as us that are going through it or have gone through it.
“We’re trying to do the best we can. We’re trying to get as many grants as we can. We’re trying to reduce the amount that we have to borrow. We’re trying to help the residents as much as we possibly can.”
Debate over fines
A fellow city councilwoman, Charlene Stanton, goes further, regularly calling the project a “fiasco.”
The issue came to a head again during a regular monthly council meeting on Wednesday, when Stanton and Councilman Jack Williams introduced two measures dealing with the sewer project.
Bill 26 of 2019, an ordinance, would have eliminated fines for property owners who do not have the necessary work done on their structures – which includes passing an air pressure test – by the deadline in their respective neighborhood. The proposal failed when the other five members – Mayor Frank Janakovic, Mock, Ricky Britt, Rev. Sylvia King and Dave Vitovich – opposed.
“A fine is being held over the people’s heads – do this work, you’re past the deadline, or you’re going to get a fine from the City of Johnstown,” Stanton said during the meeting. “To my knowledge, not one person in the city has ever received a fine.
“I say take the fine away, quit holding it and dangling it over the people’s heads. The city is not doing the work. The people are not dealing with it.”
Other members wanted to keep the fine, which can be up to $600, in place in case it might be needed in the future.
“I don’t want to fine anybody,” Mock said during an interview.
“I don’t. I want them to have an incentive to get this done somehow. I know JRA is giving them a $10 discount on it per month if they get it done. Is that something we want to look at to give people incentive to get it done? I don’t want to fine anybody. I don’t want to do it. But, if that’s the way it has to be down the road, we might have to. But that’s like the last resort … the last resort.”
The ordinance would have also struck language about unlawful connections and the section about requiring testing of interior lines. Mock said, in her opinion, Bill 26 included proposals that “really will bog down the whole thing here” if enacted.
The “bloc of five” council members also voted to table a Stanton/Williams resolution directing City Manager George Hayfield – with the assistance of appointed engineering professionals – to prepare a written report about city-owned properties compliance status with the sewer project.
“We aren’t going to vote on this stuff until we see what’s the nitty gritty on all this stuff,” Mock said.
A document from the city, dated July 5, lists 14 city-owned properties that are connected to the sewage system, one of which – the Roxbury Bandshell – has met the pressure test requirement. Three others within the city proper – Roxbury Park, the fire station on Ash Street and the mechanic shop – have missed the deadline for lateral testing. But the final pressure testing/remediation deadline has not passed yet for any of those properties. And, in some cases, the structures, including City Hall and Sargent’s Stadium at the Point, are in sections of town where no work has even started.
Johnstown has also not done work required on Berkley Hills Golf Course, a property it owns in Upper Yoder Township.
In March 2018, the city received an extension to bring the course into compliance with Upper Yoder’s laws that require a property pass either an air pressure, water pressure or closed circuit television test, according to a letter from the township. The city is currently paying a $50 fine each month, until the work is done.
“I think this is a priority,” said Stanton, a Roxbury neighborhood resident who has not done the required sewer work on her own private property. “I think it’s a slap in the face to anybody in this city who is mandated to do this work, has done it or is thinking about doing it when the city itself is not doing the work.”
Mock looked at the overall project – within the city itself – from the larger perspective of needing to be in compliance by Dec. 31, 2022, as opposed to the benchmarks along the way.
“The bottom line is, at the end of the day, before the expiration time comes along, everything has to be done – city included,” Mock said. “Everything has to be done. So, at the end of the day, you either get it done or you’ll be fined, period.
“For the city to fine itself is really stupid, so the city is going to get it done at the end of the day. Going crazy about it now seems a little nuts.”
“The issue will come up for the city and possible penalties for not complying,” Hayfield said. “We are well aware of what our responsibilities are.
“And certain council members use it – for all intents and purposes – for a political purpose, I believe.”
The city could eventually request an extension to the deadline.
Tests and costs
Johnstown entered into the DEP consent agreement in 2010 and amended the deal in 2014.
All 20 municipalities (17 systems) connected to Dornick Point have entered such orders.
The city was given the option of implementing whatever plan it felt was appropriate to meet the guidelines. City Council opted to replace its mainlines while requiring all property owners to make their systems pass an air pressure test at the recommendation of its engineering firm, The EADS Group.
Few local private systems – often with decades-old pipes – can pass the test, which is more stringent than smoke or dye, without construction work.
In 2018, Williams sent a letter to the DEP asking for clarification about some matters, including system testing and the possibility of eliminating the requirement for under-foundation testing. The DEP responded to Williams and Hayfield, in a letter dated Aug. 9, 2018, assessing the state of the city’s project and the use of pressure testing.
“Other municipalities in Cambria County have attempted to limit replacement of faulty private laterals to the foundation,” the letter stated. “To date, none have met the required flow limitation of 625 GPD/EDU. This fact demonstrates that the replacement of the laterals under the foundations is critical to meet the flow limitations due to significant amounts of inflow/infiltration into these lines from foundation drains in many cases.
“Attempts to obtain exemptions from critical provisions of the COA will only, in the end, increase costs incurred by the City and its residents to eliminate the public health hazard posed by illegal SSOs and delay the clean-up of the City’s waterways, which ultimately would provide a catalyst for urban economic redevelopment of the City’s waterfront property.”
The costs associated with the work have been a point of consternation for many residents of Johnstown, a community recently named the seventh poorest city in the United States by 24/7 Wall St. and where one-third of the population of about 20,000 lives in poverty.
As of July, 38 percent of structures in the city had passed pressure tests, which is 12th among the 17 systems connected to Dornick Point.
“Percentage-wise, are we where we should be at this point? We have a deadline of 2022,” Hayfield said. “A number of these locations within the city haven’t even hit their deadlines for compliance. I’m not really sure I can really answer that question. It would simply be my opinion. And I prefer just not to give my opinion.”
Hayfield said his concentration has been on the actual construction and acquiring state funding for the city’s portion of the work. Since he became manager last year, Hayfield said Johnstown has received more than $40 million in state funding through low-interest loans and grants.
“My focus really is to see the project itself done – the major, major infrastructure,” Hayfield said. “The compliance with the laterals and pressure testing, that’s really a totally separate topic.”
On the public side, the Sewer Lateral Assistance Program was established to provide qualified, low-income property owners – with an annual household income that does not exceed 80% of the median area income as determined by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines – money for remedial construction and final pressure testing.
“We’re going to have to ramp it up and help those people that haven’t gotten the work done however we can to see that it comes to completion,” Mock said. “We’ll do whatever we can as far as helping them, but we have to get completed here.”
The road ahead
Johnstown has done its sewer work on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.
Construction is underway in Kernville.
One of the biggest phases is expected to begin next summer, when JRA does work along the Fairfield Avenue/Strayer Street corridor in the West End. That work is expected to go out to bid in September.
Tom Kakabar, from The EADS Group, the project manager for JRA’s work, expects the West End could be “one of the more disruptive projects obviously because of its location right down the middle of Fairfield Avenue.”
Construction is then expected to take place in the central business district.
The city is considering monetizing assets in an attempt to raise funds that would possibly go toward an approximately $25 million unfunded pension obligation and stabilizing other financial matters as it prepares to exit Pennsylvania’s Act 47 program for distressed municipalities by no later than October 2021, as required by law.
One proposal being considered is sale of the sewer system to the JRA.
Council may hold a meeting about the proposal later this month. Members discussed the issue during a regular meeting on Wednesday.
“We are looking at all our assets individually on the sale or retention,” Mock said. “We haven’t made a decision yet.
“Every asset that we have now could possibly be sold, leased, whatever. We’re looking at each one individually. That’s all I can really say. It’s a council decision, so we have to look at each one and see if it’s worth it, not worth it, get the best value if we do. We’re looking at everything.
“Nothing’s off the table.”
Williams raised concerns about the proposal in an email he sent to City Hall.
“As the lone member of the current Council who was serving on Council when the Sewer Treatment was sold/transferred to JRA in prior years, and casting the only (Nay) record roll call vote in opposition to said sale/transfer, and then witnessing how the intended proceeds (were) to be utilized, only to see that said intentions were ignored, including the funding of Point Stadium renovations, demolition expenses of the Swank Building, and the additional diversion of sewer sale proceeds for other questionable unauthorized expenditures, which City records have clearly shown and documented via RTK Request,” Williams wrote.
“Further I have no desire to support the JRA running the Inner City, and/or, including the setting of rates, by a Board appointed by the person(s) holding the position of Mayor, and as currently compromised by (2) appointees who are not City residents, and with the City’s governing body (current or future) not being part of protecting the interest of City residents, in establishing Inner City Sewer Rates.”
JRA declined to comment.