‘No one can afford this’: Sussex grapples with high water rates

Sussex. As the council faces the rising costs of operating a water system, residents are worried the borough will not be able to control rate increases.

Sussex /
| 26 Feb 2021 | 11:17

Several residents came forward on Feb. 16 to express concern about the borough’s inability to curtail water rate increases in Sussex Borough.

At a previous meeting, the council discussed having RCap Solutions conduct a rate study with a view toward stabilizing the water system’s finances. Resident Damaris Lira asked on Feb. 16 if a base price would mean everyone was going to see an automatic increase.

Mayor Edward Meyer said it was premature to say anything about future rates until the study is completed.

“Afterward, we will have a better handle on what we’re doing,” he said. “Everything that needs to be done costs money, and when there’s a cost increase, it has to come from somewhere. I don’t think water rates will ever go down. If it does, it will be because of some miracle. Nothing goes down.”

Resident Nanette Fandino-Diaz rejected the idea that water rates can’t be reduced while meeting the bills. She said water and sewer services make up about a third of her tax bill.

The lack of competition is the problem, she said. “We’re stuck with the water system we have,” she said. “I can go to a different provider for my garbage. Water is going up because there is no other option for us.”

Meyer said the water/sewer utility has a fixed cost that must be paid regardless of usage. Most of the expenses involve paying to treat the water and operate the utility. The water itself costs nothing.

“It is something that is inherent with what we have,” Meyer said. “As the costs rise, we’re not making a profit. We’re just paying the expenses.”

Expansion unlikely

Councilman Robert Holowach pointed to areas where the system can expand, like Lake Neepaulin, which is frequently battling dry wells, or a QuickChek south of the borough, which has water problems. But extending pipe in either direction is not feasible because the borough wouldn’t make back its investment, he said.

“The borough owns the system,” Holowach said. “We have to lay it out. Even if it’s a private company, the rates go up in kind. It’s a system that’s confined to the town. Expanding is financially impossible because the juice is not worth the squeeze.”

The system has about 650 users, a number that is unlikely to increase dramatically.

“We’re not building high rises in Sussex Borough,” Meyer said. “Even if we doubled it, we’d still be high. The prospects of doubling it is not there.”

Fandino-Diaz suggested selling the utility, which the borough tried to do in 2014. But voters resoundingly rejected the borough’s $11.4 million deal with Aqua New Jersey, 281-162.

“The residents spoke, and that option is gone,” Councilman Frank Dykstra said.

John Amels, who owns property in the borough, said he would be willing to work on a committee with volunteers to look at different possibilities, including a sale.

“This albatross is going to destroy this community,” Fandino-Diaz said. “There’s no way. No one can afford this.”

“As the costs rise, we’re not making a profit. We’re just paying the expenses.” Mayor Edward Meyer