New Jersey American Water has started work on sewer and water repairs that will eventually allow the borough to repave big stretches of its crumbling roads.
By Matt Skoufalos
Since taking control of the Haddonfield water and sewer infrastructure this spring, New Jersey American Water (NJAW) has begun work on the first $3.7 million of a planned $15-million series of improvements to the local system, officials say.
By the end of August, the borough expects NJAW to have completed work to lines on Grove Street and Douglas, West Euclid, Lakeview, and East Park Avenues, said Mayor Jeffrey Kasko.
“They’re replacing old clay pipes, cleaning sediment out, getting cement lining, and replacing the old pipes with iron and PVC pipes,” Kasko said.
NJAW work at the intersection of Grove Street and Kings Highway has already detoured traffic to Park Boulevard this week. Once those underlying repairs are completed, the overhaul will free up Camden County to begin reconstruction of the major local artery, a project that Kasko doesn’t believe will be completed until after the winter.
“It’ll be nice to have it smooth the whole way, but I don’t think they’re going to have it done before the cold comes,” he said.
Kasko said that the influx of capital from the sale has already freed up cash for Haddonfield to begin working on the rest of its road surfacing improvements.
“It’s $1.4 million in cash in the town budget,” the mayor said. “That’s an increase of more than a half-million dollars over last year, and we didn’t have to raise property taxes again for the second year in a row.”
‘Going great guns’ on capital work
The initial phase of work is part of a larger, $15-million planned investment from NJAW that will include “overhauling, relocating, [and]modernizing” pump stations throughout Haddonfield, said Commissioner John Moscatelli.
“On the capital side, they’re going great guns,” Moscatelli said. “There’s a lot on paper that they’re planning on doing in the next few years.”
That list of projects includes the removal of an odorous sewer line at the Wedgewood Swim Club and another on Coles Mill Road that runs through backyard easements, the commissioner said.
Moscatelli described these changes as thoughtful improvements to an antiquated system, and ones that are being coordinated with borough government to match its own capital improvement schedule.
“They’re jumping on this stuff and their timetable has been very aggressive,” he said. “We’re trying to work with each other to maximize the capital that each of us has to invest. The more that we can do the roads, the more they can invest in the water and sewer infrastructure.”
The fixes represent improvements in service delivery to borough residents, Moscatelli said, but they also allow NJAW the basis to appeal for future rate increases from the state Board of Public Utilities after the three-year inaugural rate freeze in Haddonfield expires.
“If [New Jersey American Water] puts capital in, they can go back and get a rate base on that,” Moscatelli said. “If they run things to failure, they don’t get rate base on that; the BPU says, ‘You should run your business better.’
“It’s in their best interest to keep the system running better,” he said. “[The company] would rather see money go into the ground in the form of capital than in the form of emergency repairs. Emergency repairs increase their operating expenses.”
The reason “there’s plenty of places to invest money” in the Haddonfield infrastructure is because for “the last 50 to 60 years,” the borough government chose to keep property taxes down instead of reinvesting rate-payer revenues into the system, Moscatelli said.
“It goes back forever,” he said.
“There was quite a long period of time where they actually took excess revenue from the water and sewer utility and used that to offset property taxes. If we had just invested that in the system, we would have been able to provide a nice, reliable service to our residents at a nice reliable rate.”
Moscatelli said that he doesn’t subscribe to a “privatize-at-any-cost” philosophy, of government, but that the needs of the borough infrastructure had become so severe that it became financially infeasible to bond the repairs.
“We have contract garbage removal and in-house recycling and vegetative waste [and]I get just about as many complaints [about]either [service],” he said.
He also pointed out that in its takeover of the borough utility system, NJAW made offers of employment to every Haddonfield worker affected by the sale, exceeding terms of the contract, which only guaranteed the existing staff an interview. Some staff retired; others accepted the new jobs, he said.
In gauging citizen reactions to the transition, Moscatelli said a couple of residents have experienced what he believes are “coincidental meter issues,” and instances in which some billing addresses were incorrect; he believes NJAW is working to address these. A key change is that the company bills residents monthly for water and sewer service rather than quarterly, which the borough did.
To smooth the transition, NJAW sends a representative to Haddonfield Borough Hall for weekly open office hours with borough residents (10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays). The company also hosted an open public meeting for the same purpose at borough hall at the end of July, but attendance was scant, he said.
“They’ve been working hard to make the transition as painless as possible,” Moscatelli said.