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Sewage billing back-ups leave residents feeling drained

By Jamie Wiggan

-Stowe & Rocks-

Area residents are letting loose with complaints in response to sewage billing backups on the part of Berkheimer Associates.

According to those utility users, quarterly bills from earlier in the year were so far delayed that they arrived immediately before the following billing cycle was issued.

“It’s basically like a double bill,” said Randie Trump, a Stowe resident who owns a small rental portfolio in McKees Rocks and Stowe. “I just had to put out $3,000 in sewage bill money.”

Based in Eastern Pennsylvania, Berkheimer contracts with several area municipalities to collect sewage payments on their behalf, for which it takes a cut. Residents of McKees Rocks and Stowe in particular reported significant problems with the most recent quarterly cycle.

Officials representing both communities said they’ve been contacted about billing concerns.

“I have gotten a lot of complaints — as we all did on the board — about the issue with Berkheimer and their billing,” said Stowe Commissioner Cheryl McDermott during the township’s Jan. 11 business meeting. “I am very upset because we have a lot of senior citizens that are getting $200-300 bills, and this is really not fair.”

Newly appointed McKees Rocks Council President Archie Brinza said he’d received “several emails, texts, inboxes” regarding the billing issues and said he was making it a priority to find solutions.

“It’s something I believe needs fixed and something that needs looked at,” he said.

Although the Stowe commissioners did not take action during the January business meeting, they did discuss contracting with other collection agencies or using the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN’s) in-house collection agency.

Commissioner Darrell Chestnutt said Berkheimer “is blaming the double billing on COVID-19. We're actively looking for another company to do our sewage billing.”

Having to fork out for two billing periods is not the only consequence of the delays, according to residents. The late bills also warn of imminent late fees for those who don’t pay immediately.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Stowe resident Missy Stine. “Especially right now [during the pandemic] it’s even more damning.”

Stowe Manager Nick Martini said he reached out to Berkheimer to try to find solutions and was told the delays were caused by “staffing issues because of Covid.”

In response, the billing company offered to postpone the late fee period by 30 days to Feb. 17 for Stowe residents.

However, many are concerned the problems will continue.

“I just wish they would get rid of Berkheimer altogether,” Trump said. “They’re just horrible to deal with.”

McKees Rocks resident Danielle Spisak said she’s been dealing with billing issues since she bought her home in 2007, but problems increased when the borough contracted with Berkheimer in 2013.

“We are being double-billed at McKees Rocks every year,” she said.

Manager Ruth Pompey said she hasn’t been contacted by residents regarding late sewage bills and therefore hasn’t needed to make contact with Berkheimer on their behalf.

“Usually if there’s a problem, I’m going to hear about it,” she said.

Suggesting a possible explanation for this, Trump said Berkheimer bills tend to arrive in McKees Rocks slightly behind those for neighboring Stowe. Having received just one bill in December for his McKees Rocks property while he was billed twice for his Stowe properties, he expects he and many other McKees Rocks residents will receive another bill imminently.

“Berkheimer is extremely behind,” he said.

What’s in my sewage bill?

Depending on where you live, you may see multiple charges on your quarterly sewer bills: here’s what they all mean.

In most Allegheny County municipalities, residential sewage is treated by the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN). In those cases, as your sewage treatment provider, ALCOSAN fees will make up the highest share of your bill (measured in dollars per thousand gallons).

Although they don’t process your sewage, most municipalities charge their own fees because they own portions of the public sewer lines that transport wastewater from your home to ALCOSAN’s treatment plant in Pittsburgh’s Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood. The municipal fees go toward maintaining those public lines and for billing and processing costs.

Additionally, ALCOSAN charges each account holder a flat quarterly fee — as do some municipalities — regardless of water used.

During the past several years, the sanitary authority has increased its rates by around 7% per year. McKees Rocks Council is scheduled to vote on whether to raise the municipal fee from $4.33 to $6.00 during a special meeting Jan. 21.

Writer Chadwick Dolgos contributed to this story.


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