RED BANK: BURNHAM REOPENS WATER VALVE

horgan burnham 022614Councilwoman Cindy Burnham, right, listens as Councilwoman Kathy Horgan reads an Environmental Commission resolution that denounced any move to privatize Red Bank’s water utility. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

New Red Bank Councilwoman Cindy Burnham‘s recent suggestion that the town sell its water utility got a thorough hosing Wednesday night.

Two weeks after discussion of $2.2 million capital improvement bond prompted Burnham to call for privatization of the water system, Burnham sat stone silent through a critique of the idea Wednesday night – and then voted in favor of the bond.

By Thursday morning, though, the council’s lone Republican was talking again, calling opposition to her suggestion an “attack” by the Democratic majority.

Two weeks ago, on the introduction of an ordinance for a $2.2 million bond to make repairs to the water and sewer plant, Burnham said, “This is a lot of money we’re putting into the system. If our infrastructure is in such bad condition, maybe we should consider selling our water and sewer system.”

The suggestion catalyzed Food & Water Watch into action. The nonprofit organization, which calls privatization a “major threat to the human right to water” around the globe, launched an online petition opposing the change. It also prepared an extensive press packet, and sent a representative, James Walsh, to Wednesday’s bimonthly council meeting, armed with a slide show, to try to halt the move.

Walsh told the council that selling the municipal system would drive up costs to consumers by an estimated $153 a year, put control of the system in the hands of a corporation more responsive to shareholders than customers, and result in local job losses.

“The thing that’s really egregious is that private companies can include the cost of acquiring municipal systems in their rates, so the ratepayers are essentially paying the company to buy up water,” Walsh told the council.

With the exception of Burnham, however, Walsh was preaching to the choir. The five Democratic council members and Mayor Pasquale Menna have repeatedly rebuffed calls to sell the system. And Menna declared his unqualified opposition to the idea of a sale.

“There has been some chatter, and that’s all it is – and not even consequential chatter” – about privatization, Menna said, without mentioning Burnham by name. He said like mayors Mike Arnone and Ed McKenna before him, his administration had considered the issue and concluded that a sale did not make sense.

The utility “is a valuable asset for Red Bank,” Menna said. “It makes money. It is held in public trust. It would be foolhardy to sell it.”

And if the council ever changed its mind and approved a sale, Menna said, “I would veto it.”

But Wednesday night, Burnham asked no questions of Walsh and did not challenge Menna. She also remained silent after Councilwoman Kathy Horgan read from a resolution approved by the Environmental Commission the night before that called a sale “an irresponsible abdication of duty to provide safe water” to residents and other users.

Burnham then voted yes, without comment, to approve the bond, which passed 6 to 0.

On Thursday morning, redbankgreen asked Burnham about her silence. Here’s her emailed reply:

I was going to expound on that last night, but chose not to.  I really have to laugh!  No one has ever really questioned these bonds, they have just all passed without question. It seems time after time, we are bonding to replace, repair or purchase something water/sewer related, or not.  I wanted to know if all of this 2mill was for capital improvements. All I did was to question the 2 mill bond regarding the water utility and to say that this may be the time to start a conversation regarding the water / sewer system.  During my campaign, taxes and the water / sewer costs, were the #1 concern of residents.  I felt it was an appropriate time to start the discussion. It was so funny to me that the council jumped right into action , prompting a rep from Water Watch and a resolution from the EC.in support of keeping Red Banks water utility in Red Banks hands. The Water Watch Rep stated that when a water utility is public, that the public should have some input and control.  For years, it has been business as usual regarding the water / sewer utility. Cost to the residents continue to rise.
I believe that the water & sewer bill is like a second tax on residents and that it is used as a slush fund for the over spending of Red Banks governing body.
I know that the RB Water Utility generates revenue, however the cost of RB water and sewer is outrageous when compared to other towns.  I know that the water utility is a huge money maker and in my opinion, that’s why the council went on attack the minute I brought up looking into how this system works and can we make it more affordable to the residents.
Given the fact that the governing body jumped to action so quickly to squash any discussion regarding this utility and tried so hard to point out the positives, only says to me that I really need to investigate.  This was a promise I made during my campaign and I must follow through.  I need to understand this utility better so I can explain it to others.
Why are our water rates so high?  Atlantic Highlands has it’s own wells and the cost to the residents is dirt cheep.  Their sewer costs are another thing.  I think that residents should get a lower rate and the non profits should remain at the same rate. Hopefully, we can all work together to achieve the  goal, which is to make the water/sewer rates in RB more affordable.

Here’s the bond ordinance, which spells out the affected projects and costs included: RB 2014-3

Borough Administrator Stanley Sickels said he expects the town will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the $651,000 cost of replacing a sewer pump in Marine Park. The pump was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

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