Edison, NJ - On Monday, dozens of residents gathered at a public meeting organized by a group opposed to Edison Mayor Thomas Lankey’s proposed 40 year lease of Edison’s sewer and water systems to Suez North America, a Paramus-based water and wastewater company
The meeting primarily focused on a presentation by Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group on healthy food and an advocacy group on healthy food and clean water issues. Critics of the $800 million proposal are calling for the end to water privatization in Edison.
"Edison’s new deal to privatize its water and sewer system might sound too good to be true—because it is,” said Junior Romero, a New Jersey Organizer for Food & Water Watch. “The $811 million plan promises the township money up front in exchange for local control of a precious resource. But this is not free money. It’s an exorbitant loan that residents and businesses will be on the hook to repay for the next 40 years,” he said.
Mr. Romero stated that 9 in 10 people in the United States receive their water service from a public utility, making Edison an outlier. He argued that continuing with the privatization of Edison’s water supply would leave residents vulnerable to rate increases.
"Overall, our research shows that private water providers charge more to residents than publicly-owned systems—hundreds of dollars more every year for families in New Jersey," said Mr. Romero. He stated that on average, for the typical New Jersey household, a privately owned water service costs 79% more than a public water service.
“This shouldn’t be a surprise; a private company is not a charity, and it needs to recoup its costs plus deliver for its shareholders. That means Edison residents will give up control and pay more in the long run. The short-term relief that a company like Suez is offering only masks the long-term costs associated with water privatization" said Mr. Romero.
Mr. Romero also cited specific examples of issues other municipalities were having with Suez. “Bayonne saw rate hikes well beyond what they expected after leasing their water systems to Suez and KKR. Last year, Middletown, Pa. sued to tried to stop a sneaky surcharge, and it spent more than half a million dollars on lawsuits related to the lease, contributing to a recent tax hike," he said.
Several residents who attended Monday’s meeting expressed anxiety and frustration with the proposal. “I just want to make sure we have the water lines replaced instead of repaired, and have clean water and the rates not going up, so that’s basically the three things that I’m concerned with,” said Anthony Fiorello. “Main concern is what is this new company and are they going to replace the lines? I don’t know about that. The service, and how much it’s going to go up. I’m opposed to increases and not knowing what we’re going to get for the increases. Basically I really want new water lines, replaced not patched,” he added.
Many in the audience were skeptical about the level of service Suez will provide and expressed thier fears of steep rate hikes.
“After seeing the numbers that they showed us here- just for Bayonne they showed they had a 30 person sewer department. When Suez came in, they lowered it down to 19,” said Richard Brescher, a Edison Board of Education member that attended the meeting.
“The problem that I really see is that in Edison we have an 8 person sewer department so we’ve understaffed our sewer department and allowed it to fall into disrepair, like our community center. So somehow the administration needs to bring the staffing levels up to where we can actually maintain our buildings and our infrastructure, not by selling it off to a private company, that’s really where I am with it,” he said.
Food and Water Watch proposed alternatives to the Mayor’s proposal, including public-public partnerships, bulk purchasing, and shared services. Benefits of public control of water, argued Mr. Romero, are affordability, watershed protection and conservation, environmental protection, long term water resource management, transparency, and ballot box accountability.
Monday’s meeting was the first of two meetings being held by Food and Water Watch. A second meeting will be held on March 20 at Edison Memorial VFW Post 3117, located at 53 National Road, in Edison also from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Earlier on Monday, Mayor Lankey dismissed the meetings by Food and Water Watch. “Monday night's meeting, and another set for later this month, are very premature. Anyone who attends will only hear incomplete and mistaken information,” Mr. Lankey said. “Accurate details about Edison’s proposed long-term water/sewer lease agreement will be available to the public at 6 p.m. March 28 at Town Hall.”