Tipton Heights water dispute worked out

Barbara Greenaway of Glenby Drive in Tipton Heights is retired now, but she remembers taking her toothbrush, washcloth and soap to work.

It happened whenever the private waterline that runs for a mile along Grazierville Road and down Glenby would spring a leak, and some or all of the 26 households it served went dry.

The residents – minus some who refused to participate – would hire their own contractor to make repairs, and one time, there was nothing coming out of her taps for a week.

Greenaway figures that kind of hassle will soon be gone for good with a recent informal agreement struck by a lawyer representing the Tipton Heights homeowners and the Altoona Water Authority, which has provided water to those homeowners for years.

With the agreement, the authority took what it believed was a sweet proposal and made it much sweeter.

By doing so, it pumped up participation from 14 households to 25.

The one holdout is at the head of the private line, nearest the authority main.

Previously, an authority official said the board was “being as generous as it could be,” while another said, “We’re not going to negotiate further.”

But homeowners’ lawyer Rick Gieg found a big stick – in the form of a 1960 Superior Court case that prohibits water authorities from abandoning service to customers on private lines simply because those lines are private.

“In my opinion, it provided leverage to get a better deal,” Gieg said.

Authority solicitor Alan Krier said he thought the case was far from a perfect precedent.

Nevertheless, the authority renegotiated.

Under the old proposal, homeowners would have paid a tap fee of $2,350 upfront, then their shares of the authority’s approximately $153,000 in material costs for the project.

Those no-interest materials payments would have become part of regular water bills – an additional $36 a month for 10 years or $24 a month over 15 years for a total cost of $6,670.

The authority planned to cover all labor and equipment costs.

Under the new arrangement, the authority agreed to reduce the tap fee to $830, with only $500 of that upfront.

The remaining $330 of the tap fee will be folded into the household shares of the materials costs, which are $4,680 each.

If customers choose the 10-year option, they’ll pay an additional $39 a month.

If they choose the 15-year option, they’ll pay an additional $26.

Each household will end up paying about $5,460 overall – while the authority’s total costs will be about $400,000.

“They ought to be jumping at that,” said authority member Tony Ruggery.

“They did,” said authority in-house engineer Mike Sinisi, who was part of the recent meeting where the parties worked out the new arrangement.

“I don’t think we’re going to get a better deal,” said Greenaway, who had been willing to sign for the less generous proposal.

“It should be good for both parties,” Gieg said.

The deal will be good not only for the residents, but for the authority, as the residents will grant the necessary easements at no cost and the project will eliminate lost water the authority isn’t getting paid for, Gieg said.

The authority never intended to abandon the customers, although for a time, after only half the residents agreed to participate in the previous deal, authority officials talked about installing a master meter that would have allowed them to bill the nonparticipants for that lost water.

Paying for the lost water and maintenance of the old line would have been financially difficult for his clients, according to Gieg.

Recently proposed changes at PennDOT could add to the authority’s cost for the project, which will take place next year, according to Sinisi.

PennDOT now plans to require a full-time inspector at $55 an hour when utilities occupy rights-of-way, Sinisi said.

PennDOT may also require utilities not merely to patch roadway openings, but to pave entire lanes, he said.

“We didn’t see this coming,” he said.

The authority may try to ameliorate those hardships by arguing that a full-time inspector would be unnecessary for the Tipton Heights job, and that repaving would be unnecessary, because Grazierville road is scheduled for a repaving anyway in 2015, he said.

A resident of Glenby Drive who wasn’t willing to give his name for fear of jeopardizing the deal – which isn’t final – praised the authority for the new arrangement.

“I can’t say enough,” the resident said. “The management style was very accommodating to us that really needed it.”