The first time I met Donna Schwartz, the Deputy Commissioner for the Philadelphia Water Department, it was in a March 2018 meeting at City Hall with Councilman Mark Squilla. She sat expressionless at the table with her arms folded.
She looked angry.
A half dozen neighbors and I had asked Councilman Squilla to schedule a meeting with the Water Department. We were eager to review the findings from a "ground penetrating radar" report (more on that later) and to coordinate repairs on our street that were promised for April.
When we arrived, Donna offered no greetings. She barely looked up. Joanne Dahme, General Manager of Public Affairs, gave a warm "hello", but after that said very little. It was clear to me: this was Donna's show.
When the Councilman arrived, the first thing Donna said was that PWD would not pay for any street repairs. The very first thing. She was fuming.
It was a "problem first" attitude. It was an unhelpful statement and I think we were all a little shocked that someone this high in the Water Department could be so abrasive.
We confronted her with what I like to call the "$10,000 Maser Report". The City paid $10,000 to Maser Consulting for the report in the hopes that it would show our sinking street was the fault of homeowner sewer laterals. The laterals are pipes connecting homes to the sewer which runs down the middle of the street. If a lateral breaks, water (I'm using that term gently) escapes and can erode the soil, causing the sink to street. At least that's the theory.
The Water Department pushes this narrative all across the City when there are street problems, because it means the City won't have to spend money to fix the street. Broken laterals are the responsibility of homeowners. They usually cost homeowners over $5,000 each to repair.
But the $10,000 Maser Report showed something the City didn't want: serious structural issues. It outlined 17 known issues and about 5 potential causes, only one of which was broken sewer laterals.
Of course PWD didn't like this. "That report never should have been done in the first place", Donna barked at the meeting.
The report showed that the Water Department did have responsibility (or at the very least, that homeowners weren't exclusively to blame). But ever since the report was released, PWD has done its best to hide and ignore the report.
When we tried to discuss the 17 anomalies the report identified, Donna wouldn't hear of it. She was combative and she seemed infuriated with the situation. Her attitude suggested she was annoyed that others had let this situation get out of control.
It's the same tone I have seen time and time again from an "arms folded when you first meet them" Water Department. They would prefer to spend thousands of dollars to point fingers rather than just fix the problem.
Donna is one of the highest ranking leaders at the Water Department. Her tone matters. She leads hundreds of people. Her attitude filters down (like a broken sewer lateral?) and erodes the cooperation and the can-do attitude we need from City services like the Water Department.
Today our street is still sinking.
But while our damage is contained to just Monroe Street, the damage from leaders of the Philadelphia Water Department continues to sink our City.