PATERSON, NJ — Paterson’s sewer fee structure will revert to a flat rate for residents following the City Council’s 7-2 vote to repeal Mayor André Sayegh’s water volume usage-based system at its meeting Tuesday evening.
The councilmembers who supported dismantling the controversial system referenced miscalculated bills and the financial burden of heightened fees on their constituents as main motivations for their decision. The vote came days after the state sent a letter to local officials confirming that eliminating Paterson’s sewer utility could threaten the city’s annual transitional aid budget and necessitate the repayment of $2 million in funding.
“All this did, this utility, is it became self-sustaining,” Council President Flavio Rivera said. “But in...a perfect world, it should’ve gone down. Sewers go up, taxes go down.”
Before establishing the utility in 2019, Paterson financed sewer operations through the municipal budget and ran the system at a deficit of over $6 million. The utility helped cover the gap, and estimates from the city indicate that average households experienced a 32 percent increase in their yearly fees. Several councilmembers have alleged that some constituents saw their bills surge up to 500 percent.
The plan mandated that all buildings pay a one-time charge determined by the size of their water meters as well.
When the council first voted to undo the system at its Feb. 9 meeting, only Sixth Ward Councilmember Al Abdelaziz objected to restructuring, citing the city’s lack of a replacement plan. On Tuesday, Fourth Ward Councilmember Ruby Cotton joined Abdelaziz in opposing the measure given the risks posed to Paterson’s transitional aid.
“All I’m saying is pump our brakes,” Abdelaziz said. “Bring your formula, bring the rates back, but keep the utility. I do not want to jeopardize the two extra million dollars.”
Abdelaziz introduced a motion that would have abolished the residential billing method while preserving the utility to meet the state’s criteria for receiving transitional aid. He, Cotton, and Council Vice President Lilisa Mimms backed the amendment, but the remaining members rejected the adjustment, preferring an immediate reversal that they believed would provide greater relief for sewer system users.
Now, Paterson will return to its former $224 flat fee for residents with commercial facilities still billed for their water volume usage. Besides reimbursing the $2 million in transitional aid that the city received when Sayegh’s strategy first took effect, Paterson might also lose all future aid if it does not find a suitable alternative, Kathleen Long, the municipal business administrator, previously told TAPinto.
“The council has damaged our relationship with the state and the monitors who work tirelessly to help restore Paterson and its financial footing in the short and long terms,” Long said in a statement.
According to Long, tax hikes and layoffs of city employees could offset the transitional aid reduction, with residents’ taxes potentially rising up to 12 percent depending on the extent of the firings.
“It’s a little uncomfortable to hear that we’re going after the taxpayer,” Fifth Ward Councilmember Luis Velez said. “If this administration puts something in front of us that they’re going to retaliate and go after the taxpayer, we’re going to vote it down.”
A third-party team must complete a study to determine the best direction for sewer billing moving forward. The Sayegh administration will require approval from the New Jersey Division of Local Government Services (DLGS) and the City Council on any plans to revise the flat rate and create a new utility.
The DLGS has not yet clarified whether or not the council’s vote guarantees the total forfeiture of its anticipated $21 million in transitional aid this year, but the letter explained that implementing a replacement in the months ahead will allow Paterson to receive that funding.
“November is right around the corner,” Councilmember Maritza Davila said, alluding to the upcoming election season. “I doubt very much that the State of New Jersey would do this to the City of Paterson.”
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