Bucking state restrictions

| 22 Feb 2012 | 08:24

    Towns play consolidation card in bid to protect sewer service area, By Tom Hoffman SUSSEX - The State of New Jersey is encouraging municipalities to merge government operations to save money. Meanwhile, the Garden State is also placing severe restrictions on opening up new sewer service areas throughout the state as a method of protecting the environment. In a bid to protect their collective interests, municipal officials from Wantage Township and Sussex Borough have encouraged members from the Sussex-Wantage Consolidation Study Commission to plead their case to Trenton. The study commission is planning to send a letter to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) asking the agency to convince the state Department of Environmental Protection to lift restrictions. They have pinpointed areas where they believe new and existing developments can aid tax growth while generating additional income for Sussex Borough’s wastewater utility. “Our hands are tied, the county can’t get the state to change” its position, said Wantage Township Administrator Jim Doherty. “The only leverage is to get another state agency (DCA) to help.” Size matters At just six tenths of a square mile in size, Sussex Borough has a limited number of parcels available for development. However, Sussex Borough Mayor Christian Parrott told consolidation study commission members at their April 22 meeting that the town would still like the option to provide future sewer service to Katterman Farms on Route 23 and as-yet undeveloped sections of Highland Avenue. “The few areas we don’t have sewers, they (DEP) just took out,” said Parrott. Parrott noted how Sussex Borough may be poised to receive additional sewer allocations from the Sussex County Municipal Utilities Authority after it invests up to $400,000 later this year to address the town’s infiltration and inflow problems. Looking for growth For its part, Wantage would like to be able to extend sewer service to Wantage Plaza and other locations on the southern section of Route 23, said Doherty. He pointed out the irony of how businesses operating at Wantage Plaza have septic tanks that must be emptied each week. Septic trucks that cart the waste along Route 23 pass above sewer pipes that are connected to the SCMUA processing facility in Lafayette, said Doherty. Drafting a letter on behalf of the two towns would be “very appropriate,” said consolidation commission’s vice chairman, Sal Lagattuta. As the two municipalities investigate ways they can save costs, they recognize that water and sewer allocations “are very much tied” to a possible consolidation. Jack Doyle is a representative of the New Jersey DCA who attends the consolidation study commission meetings. He said that while he “can’t promise” how the agency may respond to the letter, he agreed that “it is an important step” — especially if residents of the two towns decide in November to support a consolidated municipal government. “I think we can sell it to both sides,” said Chuck McKay, another member of the 10-person consolidation study commission. “There are Wantage residents who can be served and some Sussex Borough residents who aren’t currently served” by sewer service. Members of the study commission voted to draft the letter at the group’s April 22 meeting. Eight of the 10 commission members voted in favor; two were absent. Pam Flynn, who was excused for illness, and Art Jacobs. Sussex-Wantage Consolidation Study Commission Chairman Earl Snook said the group planned to draft and send a letter to DCA within the next week. Also on the ballot: civil service If the Sussex-Wantage Consolidation Study Commission recommends that residents from the two towns should vote on a municipal merger, voters will have a second item on the ballot to consider: whether a newly-fused town should have civil service employees working for the combined municipality. Wantage Township now has 35 civil service employees. Sussex Borough’s 12 staffers are non-union. During its April 22 meeting at Sussex Borough Hall, study commission member Ed Meyer recommended that the group take a neutral stance on the position “and leave it up to the voters to decide.” Another study commission member, Wayne Dunn, noted how a municipal consolidation represents “one of the few legal ways to eliminate civil service” should residents from the two towns decide to consolidate governments. The group spent about 40 minutes deliberating on the issue. At the onset of the discussion, Wantage Township Administrator Jim Doherty cited the challenges facing any municipality that has civil service employees since it’s virtually impossible to impose layoffs or make changes to the benefits of unionized employees in a recessionary economy. In the end, all eight study commission members on hand that evening voted unanimously to leave the decision up to the residents from both towns. Study commission members Pam Flynn and Art Jacobs were absent from the meeting.