Sewer bill increase leaves many residents frustrated

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Many residents are expressing frustration over the fact that the West Orange’s $350 sewer bill is $100 more than last year’s due to a new charging structure implemented by the township, though Mayor Robert Parisi said community members would actually still be paying that amount in a different form had the original charging structure been used.

Previous years’ sewer bills only covered water disposal, treatment and a portion of maintenance and operation while the bulk of the maintenance expense was paid for through property taxes. As a result, Parisi said the sewer bill was always kept “artificially” low since it appeared that residents were paying less than they actually were through another means.

This year’s new charging structure moves 95 percent of the maintenance and operations expense out of the general operating budget and onto the sewer bill. Thus, as the mayor explained, the community was always going to have to pay $350 this year.

“The increased costs to operate government would have been reflected either in total in the tax bill or broken out within the sewer bill and the tax bill,” Parisi told the West Orange Chronicle in an April 11 phone interview. “Either way, unfortunately, these were increased costs that we are required to pay.”

The cost increase comes as the fees paid to the Joint Meeting of Essex and Union Counties Sewerage Authority continue to increase, while the expense to maintain the town’s own 110-mile sewer infrastructure also rises. The Sewerage Authority manages the Elizabeth sewage plant that West Orange’s waste is sent to and assesses an annual charge for the township to cover maintenance costs.

In a letter to residents, the mayor said the full cost to operate and maintain the sewer system in 2016 is $7,104,260. Even with the increase to $350, the township is still absorbing $20,000 into its general operating budget, though he said this amount is more manageable to cover.

And that is sure to help as the township is facing a $4.5 million deficit as a result of rises in municipal costs such as salaries and insurance. In fact, Parisi told the Chronicle that the township decided to calculate the bill in this new way because it presents a more accurate depiction of the actual cost to operate the sewer system, which in turn makes it easier to deal with increases in other areas affecting the township’s budget.

In addition, council President Victor Cirilo — who voted in favor of the sewer bill when it was before the council — pointed out that charging residents this way makes it more equitable for everyone. Cirilo told the Chronicle this is because those with tax-exempt properties never had to pay most of the sewer maintenance and operations cost when they were funded through property taxes. Now they will.

“This way,” Cirilo said in an April 8 phone interview, “everyone pays their fair share.”

Some residents might be in favor of assessing sewer costs by consumption, but Cirilo said not everyone would benefit from switching to that method — residents living alone would surely pay less, while multiple-family properties would pay more. Plus, the council president said that the township would have to spend a significant amount of money to install the systems needed to track consumption.

And Parisi said $350 is fairly reasonable considering it means that community members are basically paying less than $1 per day for 365 days of using essential items including toilets, sinks and showers. According to his letter, it also falls in the middle of other Essex County 2016 sewer charges, which range from an estimated $981.60 in Cedar Grove to $150 in North Caldwell.

Not everyone is satisfied with the sewer bill, though. Councilman Joe Krakoviak, the only council member who voted against the bill when it passed March 22, said he has serious concerns about the fact that, per his calculations, nearly half of the mayor’s $7.1 million sewer cost — or approximately $3.2 million — consists of estimates for what it would cost to replace 2 percent of the sewer system each year. But he said the township obviously does not do this annually, nor does it set aside money for future sewer infrastructure improvements. Instead, he said it usually goes into the general fund and is spent elsewhere, while sewer improvements are typically bonded separately.

Aside from that, Krakoviak said that in his opinion the sewer cost has jumped “beyond any reasonable market-based increase.” From 2015 to 2016, he said the cost increased by roughly 16.1 percent, or $982,447, a big difference, considering the cost only increased by approximately 4.3 percent, or $246,000, for each of the last two years, he said. And at this rate, the councilman pointed out, in five years the sewer cost will be $17.3 million, which would result in an $855 sewer bill.

Krakoviak said the real answer to handling the sewer bill is to charge what the service actually costs instead of estimating. Additionally, he said the Township Council has to start finding money elsewhere.

“The council should identify its priorities and look to cut expenses from the nice-to-haves,” Krakoviak told the Chronicle in an April 11 email. “We need to tighten our belts elsewhere rather than do this.”

The councilman added that the council should also look for new sources of revenue, such as charging for the township’s jitney service.

Meanwhile, many residents are frustrated that the cost of living in West Orange continues to rise. During the April 5 council meeting, one community member said senior citizens are finding it too difficult to afford their homes in town and are looking to move elsewhere. She pleaded with the council to help seniors.

According to the sewer bill resolution, senior citizens and disabled residents who qualify under state law for a real property tax deduction are eligible for a 25-percent reduction in the $350 fee. Senior deduction applications may be obtained from either the Tax Office or the Assessor’s Office; visit www.state.nj.us/treasury/taxation/pdf/other_forms/…/pd502.p.

Anna Barbone, who has lived in West Orange since 1966, said she is upset about the fact that costs keep rising while the township seems to be doing less for its residents. Barbone said the sidewalks near her home are cracked and the homes near her are in disrepair but, instead of helping, the township sends out an increased sewer bill. And she is unhappy about it.

“I don’t want to move out of West Orange, but you’re making it impossible for me to stay,” Barbone, said. “It’s not fair.”

Parisi said he can relate to residents’ concerns, but at the same time there are no easy solutions. He said that any densely populated community with service needs requires a high cost of living. It is therefore not just a West Orange problem, he said, but an issue that all Northeast communities must face.

“I can understand the frustration — I pay taxes too — but that is this an unfortunate part of living in this part of the state and living in this part of the country,” Parisi said. “It’s not an excuse. It’s not a justification. It’s just a fact of living here.”

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