By EAST ORANGE, NJ — Several East Orange Water Commission customers came to the commissioners meeting on Saturday, Oct. 14, saying they are upset about the recent 81 percent “emergency temporary” increase in their water bills that was supposed to have taken effect Aug. 1, and which actually turned out to be retroactive to May 1.
Residential EOWC customers such as Tom Puryear and Betty Robertson joined business and commercial customers in complaining about the recent rate increase and said they came to the city water utility’s monthly meeting to vent their frustrations and ask commissioners why it was necessary.
Puryear is also the president of the Oranges-Maplewood NAACP, but he said he was at the meeting on Saturday, Oct. 14, as an EOWC customer, not as NAACP president.
“I’m part of the Presidential Heights Block Association and we’re here because, retroactively, EOWC raised citizens’ rates above the deadline that they said they would,” Puryear said on Saturday, Oct. 14. “We received a notice saying there was going to be a water rate increase on Aug. 1. And what they did was they billed us back to May. My bill was dated Aug. 3. If they were going to go retroactively, they should have notified the citizens before they increased the rate. They increased the water rates without notifying us in advance and that’s not just good business.”
Tim Young, the owner of two laundromats on Central Avenue, called the rate increase illegal and said it has been bad for his business.
“I’m here expressing the concern, just like everybody else, that the substantial rate increase and the illegal action of the Water Commission to backbill you before the increase,” Young said on Saturday, Oct. 14. “I’m talking about $15,000 a month. The increase alone of this last 30 days is $9,500 extra.”
Young said he thinks of his business as if it were a gas station, because he’s basically selling water to his customers, who come in to wash their clothes at his laundromat. He said he can’t go back and pass on the cost of the rate increase to his customers and that means he’s losing money; the emergency temporary increase is cutting into his profit margin.
He said the water rate increase went from $6.03 to $9.823, an increase that is already negatively impacting his business.
“Right now, I’m behind on the water bill, the water sewer bill and my rent bill and that’s all because of the extra $9,500 a month; extra that I have to recoup,” Young said. “I’m talking about one of the stores will have to be closed or something has to be done. The fact that they quote you some of the other towns’ rates — none of those towns have had an increase like this.
Newark is still 6.03; Orange is still $6; now we have a rate of $9.8-something. Those towns are bordering here. They’re not having the price increase. So if I have to put a price increase, guess what: that’s where the customer is going to get hit.”
EOWC Director Christopher Coke told those at the meeting that the rate increase was necessary because the budget deficit he and the other commissioners found in the utility’s records was more than they’d expected. He said, “What we thought was a small deficit is actually a large deficit that we have to make up.”
“At this point, we have approximately six months to make up this deficit,” Coke said. The state is demanding we make up this deficit. In the past, the state would have had the opening to force the city to sell the water utility or enter into a management agreement.”
Coker said the emergency temporary rate increase prevents that. He said the city’s water utility is a valuable jewel that includes wells on property in other more affluent areas and communities and that makes it a commodity worth holding on to at any cost, which is where the rate increase comes in.
“At our current rate, with the increase, we are still within the rates of other municipalities like Springfield, Maplewood, Irvington and Jersey City,” Coke said. “Our sewer rates were exceptionally low. Prior to the rate increase, we were operating at a loss. We’re going in here to try to repair this.”
Puryear said he would like to know where the buck really stops when it comes to the increase.
“The question becomes, to whom can we appeal the process to,” Puryear said. “The water commissioner reports to the mayor. The mayor evidently has approved this process already, so expecting him to turn this around without there being some type of encouragement from the citizens may be a folly. There should be some state agency. I know it’s not the Board of Public Utilities. But there needs to be some state agency that we can appeal this to, because they raised the water rates without notice. Something needs to be done to address this issue. If the commissioners have done certain things and the mayor has approved it and the council has no oversight, someone’s got to be able to address this within our borders.”
Former EOWC Commissioner Greg Ward, a certified public accountant, said Puryear was wrong about the existence of a local authority to turn to for help and that residents should start writing letters to their elected officials in state and federal government.
“I recommended he go to either his congressman or his state senator and see if somebody can look down and see what’s going on,” said Ward, who is currently involved in a defamation lawsuit against the city of East Orange, Mayor Lester Taylor, the EOWC and media outlets, including Worrall Media, at the meeting.
“I think a lot of this can be addressed if there was a little bit more transparency. And releasing financial statements so people can see what’s actually going on with the numbers. Show comparatives, what happened the year before to this, so they can see where the increased cost comes in.”
Attorney Ashton Thomas from Elizabeth said Ward was wrong and that anyone upset about the 81-percent rate increase should sue the city and the EOWC, as he is doing with a class action lawsuit that was filed on behalf of other customers.
The Essex County Superior Court assigned the class action suit against the EOWC to Judge Robert H. Gardner. The suit sought an injunction against the EOWC’s rate hike “before the start of the heating season,” but the injunction was denied by the judge Oct. 23.
Thomas said the intent of his lawsuit was “to protect the seniors, veterans and disabled adults, who might well go without heat if their water services are shut off.” However, the judge didn’t see it that way.
“We did not get the injunction,” Thomas said Tuesday, Oct. 27. “I will renew my application. The exhibits show an abuse of office. I needed time to collect and review the record. I’m convinced that the water hike is a hidden tax increase.”
Thomas said he is due back in court before Gardner on Friday, Nov. 20, and that he had filed a First Amendment complaint and exhibits with the Essex County Superior Court. According to Thomas, “The complaint outlines the unconstitutional actions taken by the EOWC. The graph, exhibits, shows the true picture of water charges over time. I will renew my request for an injunction to protect the residents of East Orange.”
Ward and his fellow former EOWC commissioners, Khalid Wright and Darryl Walls, have filed a discrimination case against the city and mayor, as well as major media outlets for “publishing false and malicious information without any verification or determination of the facts regarding the performance of the EOWC.” He said their first court appearance was scheduled for this month.
“I think you’re going to see a lot more delinquencies because, if people couldn’t pay the old rate, they can’t pay the new rate,” Ward said at the EOWC meeting. “My bill tripled. Normally, I’m $200 a quarter. My last quarter was close to $500. They based their increase projections on the minimal, minimal usage. … I went up $200 to $300. And that’s probably what’s going on. I think when they start showing what people’s actual increases are, I think they miscalculated.”
Ward said, “We’re getting ready to go into winter, when you use more water for your boiler. They’re not going to be able to come down much. You’ve got more leaks in the winter with frozen pipes. That’s when their cost of operation goes up, so it’s going to be hard for (the EOWC) to bring the rate back down. This might just be the start of a permanent increase.”
Ward said on Tuesday, Nov. 10, that the former EOWC commissioners case has been moved to Friday, Nov. 20.