PITTSBURGH, Penn. -- Monaca Borough Manager Mario N. Leone Jr. likes to tell the story of the old spring on the 14th Street hill. At least, everyone thought it was a spring until the day it showed up on the borough’s new leak detection system as—just that—a leak.
Leone says the “spring” had stayed underground in a sandstone formation until the day he and other officials found out it was leaking as much as 200,000 gallons a day, which is about one-third of the 600,000 gallons the borough normally pumps each day to residents on its system.
Fixing that leak alone was more than worth the price of admission to Monaca’s rapid rise as one of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s shining examples of sustainability, said Leone, who came to Monaca about five years ago to find a financially strapped town, and, like many small towns surrounding Pittsburgh, one that time had passed by with the decline of steel and other heavy industry.
Another favorite speaking “trick” of the manager is to pull a light bulb out of his pocket, throw it on the floor and step on it. “It won’t break, he said, during a recent APWA (American Public Works Association) sustainability conference presentation in Pittsburgh. “It’s an LED light.”
Like leak detection, the LED light has played a major role in the Leone-orchestrated transformation of the two-square-mile Monaca where the population is about 6,000; there are nearly 2,500 households; some 26 miles of roads; and an annual budget of about $5 million. The borough, which lies along the Ohio River about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, has 24 full-time and 15 part-time employees; its own water and wastewater treatment systems and a fleet of 17 vehicles.
According to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Leone remembers how much his father was impressed by President John F. Kennedy’s famous saying, “Ask not what your country can do…”
He told a reporter, “I want to be a good environmental steward. I want a sustainable community for my children. But the driving factor is economic.”
In January 2007, Leone and the heads of 550 other communities in 10 Pennsylvania counties were sent Sustainable Pittsburgh’s “Sustainable Communities Rapid Assessment, a checklist of 91 policies and practices.” Leone and 126 other municipalities responded.
It proved to be the catalyst Leone needed to wring the most out of the borough’s shrinking budget.
“Sustainable Pittsburgh affects decision-making in the Pittsburgh region to integrate economic prosperity, social equity and environmental quality in order to bring sustainable solutions to communities and businesses,” said Leone.
“It listed 14 essentials for a sustainable community and we recognized that Monaca had a lot of room for improvement. We were given a snapshot of what we had to do. This is what engaged me,” he said.
Four years later, the citizens and government of Monaca are great believers in the Nike slogan, “Just do it.” Driven by Leone’s efforts, the borough has opened the door to numerous grants and other funding, as well as help from many public and private sources, to complete or start a number of key sustainability initiatives:
• Traffic signals and Christmas lighting converted to LED
• Paperless council meetings and office paper recycling
• Recycling—cardboard, organics and special events
• Installed leak detection for the water system
• GPS tracking systems in the Public Works vehicles
• Brownfield redevelopment
• LEED-certified riverfront park
• LED lighting upgrades
• Newly adopted zoning ordinance
• Promoting a walkable community
• Creation of windmill and solar ordinances
• Energy performance contract with Johnson Controls.
“The first project we landed was replacing our existing traffic lights with LED bulbs. We worked with the Pa. Southwest Regional Commission to get a bulk purchase price and the borough kicked in 50 percent. We installed the lights. We saved $5,000 on maintenance in the first year,” recalled Leone.
Monaca did the same thing with its Christmas lights, replacing them with LED bulbs. “This may seem like a small thing, but when you consider how many burnouts you get with incandescent lights, it takes a lot of manpower to keep them lit. Not only are LEDs durable; their energy savings are substantial. And because LEDS last so long, those savings continue year after year.”
Once Monaca got on the radar screen with the switch to LED lighting, said Leone, one grant pretty much led to another and the savings mounted.
His advice to any community is to start knocking on doors, make phone calls, explore the many federal and state grants that are available, often to underwrite at least half the cost of a project.
Brownfield redevelopment is a case in point. Monaca applied for, and received, a $150,000 EPA area wide brownfield planning pilot grant, one of only 23 awarded in the nation. Working with Midland, Aliquippa and Coraopolis—also connected by the common thread of the Ohio River—the goal is to develop the LEED-certified riverfront park with LED lighting upgrades. Part of this development is the new zoning ordinance for the Planned River-Oriented District (PROD) to develop high-density housing, garden apartments and riverfront sit-down restaurants.
Monaca is the pioneer of the Ohio River Trail, co-founded by Dr. Vincent Troia, a Monaca optometrist, and Leone. The trail has led to feasibility studies for north and south shore segments totaling more than 40 miles of a proposed bike, pedestrian, canoe and kayak trail.
Another $315,700 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will be used by Penn Future’s Three River Solar Sources project to help remove barriers to and reduce costs for solar panel installations in Monaca and 23 other municipalities in Allegheny County.
The Energy Performance Contract with Johnson Controls has produced significant upgrades and savings. “We use the energy savings to pay down the debt for all improvements,” said Leone.
Upgrades to the water system are part of the contract and are guaranteed by Johnson Controls. The water project upgrade was $3 million for the replacement and upgrading of approximately 20,000 feet of old water lines to help reduce water line breaks throughout the system on the old lines and improve the borough’s water quality and pressure. The new waterline and monitoring system is expected to save the borough $2.6 million alone through 2026.
“We replaced nearly 2,500 meters with a fixed-base advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system, the leak management system and new billing software.
“Leaks eventually tell you where they are, but can you afford to wait?” stressed Leone, “as in the case of our infamous spring. Leak detection reduces time and labor and equipment and transportation costs; reduces restoration costs by pinpointing leaks; and reduces electrical costs by allowing us to repair leaks before they surface. And that cuts water loss.” Monaca is the first borough in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Maryland and the District of Columbia to have this type of leak detection.
“Before we had to read our meters because we needed the revenue. We had to wait to fix leaks. Now we can pinpoint and fix leaks immediately. There is an initial cost, but factor in the ongoing savings we can now generate at the push of a button,” said Leone.
New water meters can now be read in 10 minutes without anyone having to physically check them. The same for renters, whose meters had to be read in person before a final bill could be issued.
“We are installing a new elevated water tank at a cost of about $1.5 million that will eliminate a lot of low-pressure issues we faced. We will no longer have to pump 24/7 to customers at higher elevations,” said Leone.
Also, Monaca is in the midst of a $2 million upgrade to its municipal wastewater treatment plant and other newer sustainability programs including alternative fuel vehicles, video surveillance, solar compactors, recycling kiosks, pavement preservation with slurry and micro surfacing, a geothermal heating district and streetscape and street roundabouts.
Leone estimates Monaca has saved more than $100,000 since 2007, but specific details need to be compiled. “The payback on our traffic light system replacement, up and running for nearly four years, was only about a year-and-a-half. But it is not just the money. There are many tangibles and intangibles—the increased safety for our residents, enhanced quality of life, being able to shift our borough employees to other tasks, protecting the Ohio River, making Monaca more walkable, conserving water…It’s all win-win.”
Today, Monaca is an Ohio River Watershed Award winner, a Storm Ready Community, a NOAA National Weather Service winner for being the first sports league (Monaca Youth Baseball League) to complete awareness for lightning safety and a three-time Borough News winner for its website and borough newsletters.
And, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pat Majors, a leader on the borough’s Volunteer Outreach Committee, said, “We are trying to revitalize and clean the area to attract business and retain what we have. There is no funding. It’s all volunteers, donations and lots of help from organizations and local labor unions. What (Leone) has done in the last four years is phenomenal. They’ve accomplished all this without raising taxes.”
As Leone said, the road for Monaca and its residents is clear, “In order to keep sustain in sustainability, we not only have to talk the talk in educating our municipalities, but we have to walk the walk by doing.”