FLEMINGTON, NJ - The discussion of money – flowing like water both in and out of Flemington – was a big topic of discussion at the May 11 borough council meeting.
Mayor Betsy Driver announced that the borough received a $1.142 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) through the Rural Utilities Program. The balance of the $4.9 million replacement project will come from a 40-year loan totaling $3,758,000 at an interest rate of 1.85 percent.
The plan for a new water tower began in 2017 when the council approved a bond application with the intention of financing the, at that time, estimated $4.5 million project through New Jersey I-Bank.
The scope of the work, according to borough engineer Robert Martucci, includes a new elevated tank to be constructed in order for the 1,000,000-gallon standpipe to be re-painted both inside and outside.
Other operational and safety improvements to bring the standpipe to current codes and standards will be completed.
Both storage tanks will remain in service once completed. This will allow for more storage capacity and fewer instances of pressure issues, plus using the standpipe to feed the elevated tank via the booster pump to reduce run time on the borough’s wells.
The mayor said that with the financing now in place, Martucci will begin the process of going out to bid for the work.
On another water-related front, there was good news for residents who received those over-the-top utility bills this quarter. Two weeks ago, the council passed a resolution giving water users one year, interest free, to pay off the high bills.
This week, the council unanimously decided to forgive those excess fees.
Ordinance 2020-90 authorized an adjustment of utility fees that were billed in excess of 75 percent of normal usage.
Driver explained that the burden of forgiving these charges does not fall to the taxpayers.
“It doesn’t cost the borough anything,” she said. “It’s our water that we’re selling.”
However, she said she warned the people who received these higher bills that their bills will likely be higher going forward because they won’t be paying the flat fee if they use more than the base amount of water, they’ll be paying the usage fee.
There is a basic flat fee for water customers who use under a certain amount of water per quarter. Residents who consume more water than the flat fee covers should be charged on actual usage.
According to the mayor, there was a problem with certain radios that were not transmitting the actual water usage, so some residents were paying the basic flat fee instead of being charged for usage.
When the latest quarterly bills went out, those utility users were back billed for the usage that had not been charged over the past year.
Councilman Michael Harris said this happened through “no fault of those individuals,” and added that he is very pleased about the decision to forgive the excess fees.
One resident, the mayor said, received a bill for $3,000 above normal charges.
Since utility bills go out in cycles, some people whose radios were not working properly still have not received those higher bills. Now that the problem is known, the utility clerk will go through the next cycle bills and pull the problem invoices before they go out and blindside residents.
Council vice president Kim Tilly, liaison to the utility, said that this problem has led to a redesign of quarterly utility bills that includes changes in the format and content. Instead of a postcard, the new bills will come in an envelope and will contain usage history and a larger area for comment.
Council president Caitlin Giles-McCormick thanked the mayor, Tilly and everyone who worked on getting this issue resolved.
“We’ve spent a lot of time looking through past data to understand how the billing system works, and what system failures had to have occurred for people to get those large bills,” she said. “We’ve really made some meaningful adjustments that will improve the process going forward.”
In addition, a late addition to the agenda was presented by Giles-McCormick. She explained that the Innovation Challenge Grant run by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority has opened a new session for submitting applications.
Resolution 2020-94 authorizes the mayor to sign the application, which, if accepted, would qualify the borough for funding to cover some of the costs for digital upgrades and any other infrastructure enhancements necessitated by the pandemic.
“Hopefully this will get us support for the additional expenses we face due to Covid-19,” said Giles-McCormick.
The resolution passed unanimously.