PATERSON, NJ – Under pressure from the state, the City Council is moving ahead on a proposal to increase city sewer fees by 100 percent over the next four years. In addition to raising the fees for city property owners, officials are planning to impose a hike on surrounding towns that use Paterson’s sewer system.
The proposed hike is designed to make Paterson’s sewer operation self-sufficient. In recent years, the sewer operation’s expenses have outpaced its revenues by about $6 million per year, a shortfall that has been covered by regular city property taxes.
But the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs has told Paterson that it won’t approve the rehiring of 37 police officers and scores of seasonal recreation employees to staff the evening centers unless the city balances its budget and addresses the shortfall in the sewer operation.
“It’s not only disrespectful, it’s insulting,’’ said Councilman Benjie Wimberly of the state’s position on Paterson’s finances.
The council Tuesday night discussed an ordinance that would impose a series of four $28-per-year hikes on top of the current fee of $112 for a single-family house. By 2015, the fee would be $224, under the ordinance, which is scheduled for a preliminary vote on Tues., Dec. 13.
In theory, the increased sewer fee will shift some of the $6 million tax burden for the sewer operation shortfall from tax-paying property owners to non-profit entities - like churches, schools and charity groups – which do not pay property taxes but must pay sewer fees.
Much of Tuesday night’s council discussion focused on connections that surrounding towns have with the city’s sewer system. Council members said it wouldn’t be fair to increase the fees for Paterson property owners without also imposing a corresponding hike for users in the surrounding towns, including Clifton, Haledon, Prospect Park, Totowa, Wayne and West Paterson.
Administration officials agreed with that position. “They should not only pay what our people pay, they should pay more to pay for the infrastructure they’re using,’’ said Finance Director Anthony Zambrano.
But business administrator Charles Thomas initially told the council that the municipal legal staff would have to review Paterson’s contracts with the other towns to determine how the city would proceed on those fees. Council members balked at that suggestion, saying they wouldn’t support a city hike without a simultaneous increase in fees for the surrounding towns.
“It’s always the poorest among us who have to shoulder the greatest burden unfairly,’’ said Councilman Kenneth Morris.
So Thomas agreed to expedite the process, saying the administration would prepare a separate ordinance by December 13 that would raise fees for surrounding towns that connect to the city’s sewer system.
During the meeting, officials said the contracts with other towns are outdated and in some cases charge outsiders rates lower than what Patersonians pay.
“Just declare them null and void because they’re so antiquated and out of step with reality,’’ said Councilman William McKoy.
McKoy suggested that Paterson impose an extra 25-percent fee on sewer users in surrounding towns to cover administrative costs and infrastructure work.
“You can’t force us to cover your expenses,’’ said McKoy. “It’s user pay. That’s an illegal contract,’’ he added, referring to current agreements that don’t charge neighboring towns enough money. “If you don’t like it, take a jackhammer, lop off your connection and hold your breath.’’