Edison, NJ - After months of debate, the residents of Edison will finally decide the fate of Mayor Lankey’s proposed water-sewer deal with Suez on Tuesday, September 10. By voting “Yes” on the referendum question, voters will effectively preclude the proposed deal with Suez. However, if voters defeat the ballot question, by voting “No”, the administration will have the option of reopening its discussions with Suez.
“Tuesday’s referendum is an opportunity for all voters to weigh-in on an important decision that will have a significant financial impact on Edison Township’s future and on its water and sewer ratepayers. I encourage our residents to go vote and make their voices heard,” Mr. Lankey said on Monday evening.
What’s At Stake?
Last week, as first reported by TAPinto Edison, Mr. Lankey introduced a pared down version of his initial proposal with Suez. The new deal reduces the length of the agreement by 15 years, from 40 years to 25. The revised proposal also includes $30 million in funding for Edison’s schools, with the administration stating that those funds will be utilized for air conditioning class rooms and for other school infrastructure needs.
Except for a reduction in the upfront concession fee equivalent to the reduction of the years of the contract, all other relevant terms of the proposed agreement (cap on rates for the first seven years, senior freeze, amount of the annual concession fee, etc.) would remain the same, the administration announced.
Under the proposed agreement, the Township will also appoint local residents as commissioners to oversee the operations of Edison Environmental Partners.
However, if voters pass the referendum on Tuesday, Edison will be responsible for the management and operations of the water and sewer systems.
The proposed Ordinance requires the Township’s Division of Water Supply to retain ownership and begin the operation, management, control, and maintenance of the Township’s municipal water system. The Township’s Division of Water Supply would take control of the system at the conclusion of the Township’s present agreement with Edison Water Company. If passed, the Ordinance also requires the Township to retain the ownership, operation, management, control, and maintenance of the sewer system.
The Edison Council is presently reviewing proposed amendments to local ordinances in anticipation of the passage of the referendum. At the Council’s Monday meeting, lawmakers are anticipated to discuss an ordinance amending various sections of the township code to establish a department of water and sewer for the township. They are also anticipated to take up a resolution authorizing the firm of Mott MacDonald to provide additional engineering services in connection water and sewer systems in the amount of $45,000.00.
What Are The Arguments?
A central issue in dispute are water and sewer rates. Supporters of the Ordinance argue that any move to privatize water and sewer systems will result in increased rates, while opponents of the Ordinance argue that mandating public ownership will increase rates.
"Keeping local, Edison ownership of the drinking water & sewer system is a better deal for Edison residents than is privatizing with Suez for 40 years. Voting Yes for local, Edison control of the water utilities ensures Edison voters retain decision-making over something as important as their drinking water - not leaving that decision to Suez, who answers to their shareholders," said Junior Romero, an organizer with Food & Water Watch, a group that has led the opposition to the proposed Suez deal.
“We urge all Edison voters to join their neighbors on Election Day September 10, or mail-in their ballots. Vote Yes to keep Edison's drinking water & sewer utility in local, Edison control. Vote Yes to keep rates stable. Vote Yes to keep Suez out of Edison's drinking water,” he said.
But others argue that Edison Township is not equipped to run the water and sewer systems in Edison and that tax payers will see sewer and water bill increase if the ordinance passes.
“From our perspective, tomorrow’s election is a very important one for the town because a no vote enables the community to access resources to help improve its water and waste water, or water and sewer systems,” said Rich Hemming a spokesman SUEZ.
“A yes vote adds close to 500 million dollars in debt for the town and rise in rates to cover that debt will be far greater,” he said.
How We Got Here?
Under Mr. Lankey’s initial proposal, Edison would have entered into a 40 year, $800 million agreement with Suez. Mr. Lankey unveiled his proposal with Suez during his State of Township address in February. “We now plan to enter a long-term lease agreement with Suez North America, a Paramus-based water and wastewater company. This agreement will allow Edison to retain ownership of these systems, but also provide significant financial benefits for our community,” said Mr. Lankey at the time.
At its April meeting, the Edison Council shot down a resolution to place the controversial Edison-Suez water and sewer deal on the ballot by a vote of 5-2, with only the resolution’s sponsors Council Vice President Ajay Patil and Council member Joseph Coyle supporting the measure.
But several Edison residents did not take no for an answer. In an effort to place the issue on the ballot in November, some residents joined with Food and Water Watch to spearhead a petition drive.
In June, residents and community activists announced that they had collected 4,958 signatures on a petition that would trigger a public vote on whether the township should have permanent, public ownership, operation and management of its essential water and sewer systems, effectively precluding Mr. Lankey’s deal with Suez.
A continuation of a public hearing on the proposed water and wastewater Concession Agreement with Suez, scheduled for days after the filing of the petition signatures, was indefinitely postponed.
In July, the Edison Council had the chance to adopt the Ordinance that the petitioners called for. However, by a 4-3 vote the Edison Council narrowly rejected a proposed ordinance that would have placed Edison's essential water and sewer systems under public control.
Councilmembers Ajay Patil, Joseph Coyle, and Samip Joshi voted in favor of the ordinance. Councilmembers Robert Diehl, Alvaro Gomez, Leonard Sendelsky, and Michael Lombardi voted against it.
Since the Council did not pass the proposed ordinance, the question was placed on the ballot, in a special election, for the voters to decide.
Township officials estimate that Tuesday’s special election could cost at least $100,000 to hire poll workers, provide voting machines from Middlesex County, and make polling places available in Edison’s 78 election districts.