Judge: Utility Line Security LLC is PWSA *

Once he threw out some ratepayers’ complaints that the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority’s new water line insurance program is illegal because of negative option or “opt-out” billing, the Honorable R. Stanton Wettick, Jr. then affirmed some companies’ complaints that the program constitutes unfair competition and is therefore impermissible under state law.

The real bombshell lies slightly deeper…

PWSA and ULS contend that [the Municipal Authorities Act] does not apply because ULS is the competitive enterprise. It was not created by PWSA. I disagree. Enterprise — as defined in Black’s Law Dictionary (9th Ed. 2009) — is “an organization or venture”. In this case, the venture is a program established and administered by PWSA … This venture, established by PWSA, interferes with existing warranty programs and competes with existing plumbing companies that make water and sewer line repairs. (Wettick, Dominion et al v. PWSA)

Emphasis mine — but also his, seeing as how he repeated that assertion in several contexts throughout the opinion. The revelation that PWSA created ULS conflicts with both of their own assertions and with all of the reporting to date (e.g.:)

A month later, water industry veteran Christopher H. Kerr created Wilkinsburg-based Utility Line Security LLC, which since January has received the $5 charge added to city water and sewer bills. (P-G, Rich Lord, 3/15/10)

So as the court would have us conceive of things, previous allegations about conflicts of interest between a public official and a private company which resulted in a resignation were imprecise. ULS does not constitute a purely “private” venture at all, despite the protestations of the public authority for whom this organization contracts.

Judge Wettick also insisted that the line insurance program is otherwise good for water customers and a cost-saver. It is unclear whether the legal impasse will result in a settlement award to Dominion, Dominion and Manchester and then business as usual, or the complete termination of the program, or something entirely in between. The fact that the judge went on at length about how good is the insurance program suggests he would prefer to steer things towards a more legal continuation of the service provision.

*-UPDATE: Looks like “complete termination of the program” (Trib, Bill Vidonic).


But this would be a great moment to pause — maybe for the whole nation to pause — and to consider the phenomenon that has manifested.

Government determined to offer a public service, and evidently decided the best way to accomplish that would be to assemble some folks from the community with germane business experience and prevail upon them to start up a new company which would offer custom-tailored services to the government which created it (and to forgo widely soliciting bids for that work).

A judge goes so far as to opine that it is unlikely that any (other) private (?) enterprise could possibly offer such cost savings for the public anyway.

Cynics might argue, “Who is the government to pick and choose who gets to run my things and profit from them? I want competitive processes!”

The establishment might argue back, “This was the only way to provide a needed public benefit at such a low cost, and we all would have gotten away with it profitably if it weren’t for state government over-regulation and a few haters with magnifying glasses.”

The cynics might then retort, “Yes, but you may as well have just assembled the line insurance program in-house, where there is transparency, oversight and accountability — and where any profit from the initiative could be forwarded to the City of Pittsburgh or else used to pay down Authority debt and/or make sorely needed capital improvements.”

The establishment might well then roar, “The kinds of people who design and execute such innovations aren’t public bureaucrats, and aren’t about to become public bureaucrats so as to have the honor of slaving away under your incessant public cynicism — and good luck finding public bureaucrats with the knowledge, talents and capital (yes, we have better access to credit than PWSA) to pull something like this off.

“Son, we live in a city that has bill collectors. And those bill collectors have to be satisfied by men with connections. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for the Sunshine Act and you curse the Network. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that public oversight’s death, while tragic, probably can save billions. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves pensions, police cars, lives… You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me in that network. You need me in that network.

“We use words like List, Vibrant, No Comment…” Okay I’m probably getting a little beside the point. I don’t know what the long-term takeaway from this all should be. I know that at the end of the movie, they threw Jack Nicholson in the brig. I also know Hollywood loves happy endings and Tom Cruise as a protagonist.

I think Pittsburgh should be more diligent about following the letter and the plainly visible spirit of the law, because no one knows which of our clever innovations will get unpacked and how badly that could gum up the works.

18 thoughts on “Judge: Utility Line Security LLC is PWSA *

  1. MH

    Son, we live in a city that has bill collectors. And those bill collectors have to be satisfied by men with connections.

    And the men with connections are using my money. Screw 'em. I'll wait for somebody who is at least smart enough to create a paper barrier between themselves and the private company when they try to shift $60 a year from each house in the city.

    Steal $10,000 from one person, years in jail. Steal $1 for 10,000 people, you get elected. Steal $10,000 from 10,000 people, and you get promoted to run Bank of America.

  2. MH

    Hey, Pittsburgh is one of the nine finalists for the 2011 Siemens Sustainable Community Award for mid-size communities. I take back my objection. Obviously, you don't get to be one of the nine most sustainable mid-sized communities in a contest that was clearly not dreamed-up to get mayors and Siemens some free press without brilliant water and sewer leadership.

  3. Anonymous

    MH, you're an idiot. Do you realize how much you save if you have a water or sewer line problem? $60 a year is minimal. Some of these repairs could cost the homeowner upwards of $20K.

  4. monk

    What the hell are you people talking about?

    I know a guy currently sawing through cement side walk to repair plumbing. He would have been better served by insurance offered by PWSA.

    Here's hoping toilet problems visit you in future.

    Hey, call me expert…turds in basement, snake and vent!

    Any more than that, you'll wish insurance wasn't canceled….


    I do however think protection be optional. Not, here it is… cancel option if not wanted….


  5. monk

    Hey Boneheads!

    Gas line repair? Old city dwelling with clogged gutters and ponding water…damp basement?

    Buy the insurance…

    PWSA while misguided, should not equate with misinformed. Service offered, bites my wallet…

    Call me…if you experience problems! Ready to go….need Casino Money!

    We dig, your problems!


  6. MH

    Whether the insurance is good or not depends on the cost of the coverage, the cost of the repair, and the odds the repair is needed. If you have a free standing hundred year old house, it's a great deal. If you have a newish house, or live in a unit hat shares utility lines with neighbors, not so much.

  7. Anonymous

    Here is the so called progressive party line:

    “If someone that I don't like is making one dollar off it, then I want it shut down, it is illegal and I don't care if it serves the public.”

    thanks again progressives for screwing the rest of us. Idiots. Don't you realize you were used and duped by Dominion (Corbett's largest contributor) so that they could make more money offering you a worse product?

  8. MH

    If you're trying to slur progressives by pointing out that they object to using a public monopoly to make private income without at least being open about it, I don't think you'll be very persuasive. Obviously, nobody can tell if the other bidders would have offered a worse product unless they were actually allowed to bid.

    If the PWSA is going to turn into Best Buy and try to scare me into paying extra, I'm going to trust the PWSA like I do Best Buy.

  9. MH

    I didn't pay it. But, saying “You owe me $60 a year unless you cancel” generates a fair bit of my ill will from me*. Really, if it didn't have a nasty outcome, officials would try that stuff all the time. Which is why it is also pretty plainly illegal.

    *And talking to somebody at PWSA about it was nearly impossible.

  10. S.O.L.

    My sewer clogged up a week ago, and after a week of getting jerked around ULS finally sent out a competent plumber. They were supposed to call me today to schedule a time to dig up my sidewalk. They called, and instead told me PWSA had stopped paying for coverage, and that I was, literally, shit out of luck.

  11. MH

    You may want to run that by a lawyer. I don't know what this specific policy says, but if they'd already accepted the claim, it seems worth asking.

  12. Bram Reichbaum

    S.O.L. – According to the statement on their website, any claims submitted before March 18th should be accepted. It'd help if you paid your most recent water bill with the most recent $5 charge. Of course PWSA, ULS and those contractors could all be of differing perspectives.

  13. S.O.L.

    Two weeks without toilets, sinks, shower or washing machine and the best information I can get is it's ULS's (not PWSA's) responsibility and they'll get to me “next week sometime”. I doubt they'll include me in their website's testimonials.


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