Monday, May 1, 2017

With the water and sewer system facing a debt of more than $40 million, Vernon Township is looking for alternatives to increase flow

Vernon Council, MUA discuss alternatives for sewer system 

By Lori Comstock New Jersey Herald
Posted: Apr. 23, 2017 12:01 am

VERNON -- With the water and sewer system facing a debt of more than $40 million that will eventually fall on existing ratepayers if nothing is done, the township is looking for alternatives to increase flow while spending the least amount of money.

One alternative would be to have a sewage pump station in town, and instead of the township sending any of its wastewater outside the township, it would be kept inside and, in turn, increase the flow, Council President Jean Murphy said.

Murphy spoke at a joint public meeting Thursday evening of the Vernon Township Municipal Utilities Authority, the mayor and the Township Council, at which residents continued to voice concerns on a potential expansion of the water and sewer system.

Murphy said she went to Allamuchy with Mayor Harry Shortway and Councilman Dan Kadish to meet with U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-5th Dist., who gathered with Sussex and Warren county municipal officials for a roundtable discussion with federal and state representatives to learn about ways to procure more grant dollars for their communities.

Murphy said she approached an individual from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at that meeting and asked if there was a possibility to apply for grants to install lift stations at the Great Gorge Village condominiums. Great Gorge Village is an area where existing ratepayers -- should the council decide against the expansion of the sewer system or if the state Department of Environmental Protection were to withhold the required approval of the project -- would be stuck with the tab to pay off sewerage debt in the form of future connection fees and rate hikes.

She said she wasn't told "yes" but said she wasn't told "no" either, so it was something else the council could look into.

John Scerbo, executive director of the Vernon MUA, said an application for a USDA grant would require many factor including an income analysis of the area.

Thomas Buchney, chairman of the MUA, said that he understands that people are expressing that they are having trouble paying their bills at Great Gorge Village and that the MUA is looking into dealing with the current rates by increasing and gathering new equivalent dwelling units.

"We're looking to expand into areas that are already within our designated sewer service areas to bring in new rates," Buchney said.

Buchney noted that because a resolution was passed to endorse the sewerage expansion at the April 10 council meeting, the next step would be to delineate what those areas will include.

"I don't think we can sit here tonight and hash those out," he said.

Scerbo said an MUA engineer would need to plan the preliminary steps of going to the DEP and the county for the purpose of identifying what specific areas can be looked at for expansion.

Should the DEP or county say that there are no areas that can be looked at for expansion, Scerbo said, the MUA and council will have "a worse problem on their hands."

Next would be identifying preliminary and ancillary steps to determine what can be expanded and what opportunities the MUA can consider for low-interest rates and forgiveness through the New Jersey Trust Fund.

Ceren Aralp, authority engineer of the MUA, said that getting to a final point in just the planning phase can take "easily" nine months to a year.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, about 10 people among the near 60 present expressed concerns that included the lack of plans for the project and their struggle in making ends meets.

John Stevens, of Glenwood, a retired engineer, urged the council and MUA to seek out and form a plan for the project.

"A schedule of activities that will get you to a milestone of completions to what you want to do here," he said. "This is going to take a huge effort, it's going to take studies, assemblage of documents preceded by engineering, and has to include all the stakeholders."

Stevens said that when the stakeholders, the state, county and township are brought together, they need to develop their major goals and requirements.

Mark Bower, a resident of the Great Gorge Village condominiums, said that most of the 1,356 residents in the village "are struggling to make ends meet."

Bower said he pays $30 to $40 a month for his water bill but noted that it costs him "approximately five times more to get it out of (his) house. Something has to be done to alleviate the financial burden the MUA sewage system has placed upon us."

"If owners can't afford to live here, that forces them either to sell at reduced rates ... bringing in people even less able to afford the increasing sewer bills and ultimately a result in forfeitures and people walking away from their properties, abandoning it because they cannot afford to live here," Bower said. "I appeal to you to protect Great Gorge Village and the Minerals Hotel."

Richard Bagney, a resident of Great Gorge Village, said that although he doesn't have the answer, he doesn't believe the answer is to wait for a sewer expansion.

"There are a number of people in the village that are on fixed incomes and can't afford these rate increases as they wait for this expansion to take place," he said. "There must be other options. What other options are there? Because no action you can take right now is going to help the situation. What I see is a coming disaster."

A Vernon resident, Vinnie Speciale, said he'd "pay a little tax to help the situation so it's not a burden on the condo people. Why isn't that being talked about?"

In December 2015, the council endorsed a proposed sewerage expansion from the town center along Route 94 into the McAfee section of the township. In February 2016, the council suspended the resolution in a 3-2 vote after maps prepared by the MUA for submission to the DEP were found to have included other areas not contemplated in the original resolution.

During that time, questions had also been raised about language in the resolution that had cited an alleged 53 percent septic failure rate in the Route 94 corridor and McAfee areas that was an additional justification in proceeding with the expansion proposal.

On April 10, however, the divided council, in a 3-2 vote, endorsed the sewerage expansion.

A financial analysis that covers three expansion possibilities from engineering firm Remington and Vernick, which was hired by the council in June 2016 to conduct a sewer utility expansion study, is available on the Vernon Township website at

The next public meeting of the Vernon MUA is scheduled for 7 p.m. May 18, at the Vernon Township Municipal Building, 21 Church St. The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Township Council is 6:30 p.m. April 24, at the municipal building. If a closed executive session is necessary, the meeting would begin at 7:30 p.m.