PATERSON, NJ - A three-page presentation by Mayor Andre Sayegh; a nearly 90-minute, at times, contentious, discussion, mostly among the members of the Paterson City Council; and a pair of votes were enough to breath new life into the much debated sewer utility and billing system Tuesday.
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 was established to, and did, help, cover the gap. However, in what some called a flawed rollout, one in which even Sayegh admitted “mistakes were made,” the average household experienced a 32 percent increase in their yearly fees while some councilmembers alleged that some constituents saw their bills surge up to 500 percent.
In February the council, by a 7-2 vote, eliminated the utility, seemingly returning to its former $224 flat fee for residents with commercial facilities still billed for their water volume usage.
That move, Business Administrator Kathleen Long warned, would cost the city at least $2 million in transitional aid that the city received when Sayegh’s strategy first took effect, and perhaps put as much as $20 million in jeopardy if an alternative, which those in opposition to the utility did not offer, wasn’t implemented.
“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 at the time.
Days later, Sayegh, saying that “it wasn’t a perfect process when we made the transition two years ago,” used his power to veto council legislation for the first time during his mayoralty, only to be met again by an opposing supermajority of council members overriding that action by a 6-3 vote.
During that initial vote to override the veto, 6th Ward Councilman Al Abdelaziz, while not hesitating to share his concerns, suggested, as he had several times throughout the process, that a more sensible course of action was to “pump the brakes,” and allow for an outside entity to perform an analysis.
4th Ward Councilwoman Ruby Cotton also stuck with her vote to keep the utility in place by opposing the repeal, and Council President Flavio Rivera, fresh off a meeting with state officials, became the only member to change his vote, saying that he could “take a political stand or do what I believe.”
On Tuesday, Sayegh, saying at the outset of the meeting that he was in council chambers to “fight for the residents,” asked the body “humbly” to give his Administration, in the form of an analysis by Moonshot Mission, a Maryland based firm that describes themselves as being able to work with communities “to identify and customize suitable projects within a roadmap that increases cash flow and may even reduce customer rates, while solving significant environmental and public health challenges,” more time.
With a scope of work that is expected to include a review of the 2018 report by another firm that city officials used to underpin the value of creating a utility, provide recommendations on “equitable rate structuring,” and considering other issues such as connection fees and stormwater fees for impervious surface, Moonshot is expected to report back by April 19.
Once that is complete, Sayegh said, if the utility were kept intact, the city could then make adjustments without putting the transitional aid at risk.
Sayegh’s presentation was met with consternation by several members of the council, including First Ward Councilman Mike Jackson who suggested that it served only to “undermine the council’s concerns,” adding that it is his job, as well as his colleague’s, to “challenge the experts,” while Third Ward Councilman Alex Mendez vowed that he “would not move” until he sees what homeowners will be paying under any amended plan, something the presentation did not offer.
Second Ward Councilman Shahin Khalique also shared his view that the council should have “concrete numbers,” and belief that any suggestion that the city would lose aid from the state was nothing more than “scare tactics.”
Rounding out the members of the body that held firm to eliminating the utility was Councilwoman-At-Large Maritza Davila who said she could not vote on “what ifs.”
Tasked with the challenge of explaining somewhat complicated parliamentary procedure was newly appointed Corporation Counsel Aymen Aboushi who described that two votes would be taken, first to reconsider a previous vote to eliminate the utility, and a second to consider overriding Sayegh’s veto.
Despite her passionate airing of concerns both on the rollout, as well as with a retelling of the history on the matter to date, Councilwoman-At-Large Mimms, who earlier in the night said she wanted to see “something tangible”, cast her affirmative vote in what she called an effort to be “the adult in the room.”
5th Ward Councilman Luis Velez also said yes to the measure, warning Sayegh not to use the body as a “political tool.”
“Use us to help the taxpayers,” he said.
The second vote, Aboushi said, would be on whether or not to override Sayegh’s veto, and again require six affirmative votes, an effort that was headed for failure when Mimms abstained, an action followed by Velez who later switched his vote in opposition to it.
"There is much work to be done," Sayegh acknowledged to TAPinto Paterson following the votes. "But I appreciate the Council's willingness to engage in this discussion and to ultimately make what I believe was the right decision."
Bob Towey contributed to this report.
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