Sewer meeting ends in insults

Frustrated residents lash out at borough officials over project

HOLLIDAYSBURG — A standing-room-only meeting Monday evening ended with insults, as Hollidaysburg Borough sewer officials and frustrated residents continued to face off over an ongoing sewer project, which has been a point of contention for the better part of a year.

That argument came after a lengthy public comment session in which residents pointed to issues in a project funding application submitted in 2015.

Residents, including Richard Reimer, claim the application shows that officials diverted money that could have been used to offset homeowners’ costs.

“I guess probably the hardest part is you sit there and allow us to speak with deaf ears and closed minds,” Reimer said, addressing sewer authority board members. “And I mean that with all sincerity.”

Reimer — and many others — took to a microphone to criticize sewer officials for their reluctance to change rules associated with a sewer main replacement project, which affects two sections of the borough.

The project, which is partially mandated by the state Department of Environ-mental Protection, includes the replacement of sewer mains in areas where ground- and stormwater seeping into the sanitary system has become a problem.

In addition to main pipe replacement, homeowners may have to replace private laterals — pipes under homes and within property lines — if they fail a borough-mandated pressure test.

Private work could require homeowners to tear up basement floors to get to under-home pipes, and some have reported work costs of up to and exceeding $10,000.

“They can’t afford it, but you don’t care,” Reimer said. “I know you don’t care. You can sit there and lie all you want.”

Accusations of lying were the theme of the night, with residents like Mike Sinisi — an in-house engineer with Altoona Water Authority — making reference to a Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority funding application filed in July 2015. Resident Walt Zolna provided a copy of that application.

Zolna and others pointed to a section on page 10 of the 26-page document, which they insist shows that borough officials, at one time, considered covering the cost of private laterals.

“Under this project, essentially all of the existing sewers would be replaced with new gravity sanitary sewer collection and conveyance lines, new sewer laterals to the building foundations. … The replacement of the sanitary sewer laterals to the foundation of each building would serve to eliminate the majority of sources of clear water inflow and infiltration into the system,” the section reads.

Reimer and Zolna allege that money set aside for private lateral work was eventually rerouted so that a second phase could be added to the main-replacement project.

“The borough can’t afford to replace the laterals to the structure, but they can afford to redirect that money and do phase two,” Reimer said. “Isn’t that funny? That’s rather hilarious, I think.”

The accusation that money was diverted has no merit, said Todd Banks, a project engineer with Stiffler McGraw.

At the meeting, Banks provided a project timeline, which began at the funding stage.

Originally, work to replace pipes in the North Juniata and Hollidaysburg YMCA area was estimated to cost about $7.1 million, he said.

That amount was sought in the Pennvest funding application, which later yielded $6.3 million in low interest loans and grant money for project construction, Banks said.

However, a construction bid — $4.6 million — came in well below the estimated cost.

That left $1.7 million in Pennvest funds, Banks said, explaining that money would have had to be returned to the state if the project was not expanded.

Sewer officials chose to address a second problem area near Jones Street.

Banks maintained that extra portion never took money away from private lateral work.

“The laterals to the building foundation were never included in the Pennvest funding application,” he said.

Hollidaysburg Sewer Authority Chairman Regis Nale said officials once considered covering laterals to homeowners’ foundations, but that idea was eventually abandoned due to legal concerns.

Messages left for authority solicitor Nathan Karn on Friday and Tuesday were not returned.

Lateral piping still was purchased as a part of the project, Nale said, explaining that those pipes were installed to the end of borough rights-of-way.

“When you say laterals , they think laterals from curb to home,” he said, referring to frustrated residents. “Our definition of laterals is anything from the main line.”

Residents mentioned other application flaws, namely multiple references to Cambria County’s Southmont Borough and Johnstown Redevelopment Authority.

“Alternative 3 was chosen because of its ability to provide a safe and reliable sanitary sewer system for residents of Southmont Borough,” the application reads at one point.

Those references, which were added in error, are proof that Hollidaysburg paperwork was largely copied and pasted, residents claim.

Banks said Monday was the first time he was made aware of those discrepancies.

Despite passionate opinions being expressed, the night remained largely peaceful until Sinisi and Borough Manager James Gehret began to argue near the meeting’s conclusion.

The argument was spurred by a comment from Gehret, who scolded Sinisi for issuing what he called a “threat” to Nale.

Sinisi had referred to Nale and another authority board member as Regis and Kathie Lee — a reference to a popular morning talk show — before telling Nale he was “done.”

Gehret’s subsequent scolding provoked another set of accusations from Sinisi.

“You’ve been spreading stuff about me,” Sinisi said, addressing Gehret. “It got back to me that you’re telling people I don’t know what I’m doing.

“You’re a bean counter,” Sinisi said, continuing to address Gehret. “You don’t know anything about this. … We’ll see how long you’re in office, too, buddy.”

Nale said he still sympathizes with residents who are finding it difficult to cover the cost of under-home work, but he also maintains that work is the only way to truly fix the problematic system.

“There is way more concern for the public by the authority than this group is painting,” Nale said.