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Sussex Council Grapples With SCMUA Contract

Robyn Giannini

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 • 4:39pm

SUSSEX, NJ - For better or for worse, discussion at the council meeting of Sussex Borough Tuesday night revolved around the intricacies of the borough’s contract with Sussex County Municipal Utility Authority, or SCMUA. Municipal auditor Tom Ferry and attorney John Ursin outlined specifics of the contract, under which Sussex Borough was losing money every month in SCMUA fines, for failing to adhere to maximum and minimum levels of sewage flow as established in the contract.

In most cases, Ursin explained, towns have an arrangement with SCMUA over a maximum amount of waste that can be emitted into the sewer system before the town begins to be subject to fines. While a set maximum capacity agreement is customary, Sussex Borough is unique to surrounding townships in that it is also held to a set minimum allocation level. The borough must hover between a minimum 312,000 gallons and a maximum 464,000 gallons of input into the sewer system, or else they will be charged by SCMUA each month in fines. Furthermore, Sussex Borough’s fines are double the rate of surrounding towns in the county as stated in their contract with SCMUA, created in 1992.

Sussex Borough utilized 210,000 gallons of their maximum allocation of 464,000 gallons in 2012, or less than half of what they were entitled to expend.

“The issue is not the cap, the maximum amount that can flow to the municipal capacity. The issue is the minimum,” said Ursin. “It’s an inefficient use of the resource, which drives the cost up.”

Back in the 90's, when details of the contract were first drawn out, sewer allocation was regarded as a commodity.

“When there’s a lot of economic pressure, it becomes valuable. When there’s no pressure, sales plummet,” said Ursin.

“It shows you in a good economic market and a bad economic market how widely the value can move.”

Auditor Tom Ferry added that every town goes through an audit each year to “make sure revenues going in and expenditures going out are in compliance with New Jersey state regulations.”

Once established, a contract with SCMUA is essentially permanent, unless both the town and SCUMA agree to terminate it. Ursin suggested it would be highly unlikely for SCMUA to consent to alter or end the Borough of Sussex’s contract; therefore it was in the borough’s hands to take action on minimizing charges by SCMUA for sewage treatment and disposal services.

“Now we need to work on how it is we’re going to lower the rate,” said councilman Edward Meyer.

Ursin recommended two steps the borough could take to do so; either add more customers, which would allow for a greater percentage of output to be utilized, or sell allocation to towns approaching their own output limits on the open market .

“The closer you come to using your maximum percent, that’s how you’ll save money,” said Ursin. The trouble with selling sewer capacity, Ursin said, was that “most of the towns are using a low percentage of their allocation,” and subsequently would be unlikely buyers.

Hamburg resident Jim Bevere chimed in on the subject, after first giving a quick lecture on what he said was the inadequate five minute time restriction placed on members of the public, who desired to voice their concerns to the council.

“As far as selling out allocation, I hope the council would recognize the value of the resource, and not sell out everything we have,” said Bevere.

Cruising through agenda business, clerk Mark Zschack updated the council on the status of the potential purchase of a new fire engine, stating the process of collecting information was ongoing and would continue before a concrete decision was made. The board also approved a motion to begin a Firefighter Certification Program at the firehouse, at no additional cost to the borough.

A major initiative by the town in the works for years, the Sussex County Water Quality Management Plan, also moved forward after the council carried a motion Tuesday evening to pass one last amendment to the plan.

“This is the final map, the take-it-or-leave-it map,” Ursin said. “If one of the developers showed up tomorrow and said ‘connect me here,’ that map would be sufficient.”

The council also concluded the Flynn litigation saga by approving of a settlement, and officially carried a request allowing the Sussex County Division of Public Works to refill their street sweepers from the town fire hydrants, something they have done for years, without it being officially stated as acceptable in town legislation. Ursin said he capped it at a “limit of 1,000 gallons per day, and only for their street sweepers.”

 

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