Editor’s note: This article was updated July 10 at 1:45 p.m. with a response from Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora and again July 13 at 3:45 p.m. to clarify that which townships filed the motion, as well as to add a statement from Trenton council member Robin Vaughn.
The governments of three suburban towns served by Trenton Water Works are demanding the City of Trenton to sell the water utility, and allege that the city has improperly used suburban ratepayers’ money to balance the city budget.
Those allegations—and more—appear in a motion to intervene filed by the governments of Ewing, Hamilton and Lawrence in Mercer Superior Court July 8 as part of an effort to join a state lawsuit against Trenton and its water utility.
“The right to clean water is a human and constitutional right,” Hamilton Township director of law Elissa Grodd Schragger wrote in a July 8 letter to Mercer Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy. “This is nonnegotiable. It is also clear that Trenton and TWW have repeatedly and egregiously missed benchmarks in fulfilling their obligation to provide safe and clean drinking water for the customers of TWW.”
Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora, in a July 10 statement, refuted the claims in the motion, saying his administration has done much in the last two years to right the wayward water utility. Among the accomplishments touted by Gusciora were reducing the utility’s vacancy rate to 5%, launching a program to replace lead service lines in the system, making repairs and improvements at TWW’s water filtration plant and embarking on a $405-million, six-year capital improvement plan.
However, Gusciora also acknowledged in his statement that his efforts with TWW have been “despite an uphill battle with City Council.” It was the council’s decision to reject $83 million in improvement projects at TWW in May that spurred the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Attorney General’s Office to file suit against TWW and the City of Trenton June 15. DEP, in a statement announcing the suit, cited “a pattern of inaction” in city government.
Robin Vaughn—a member of Trenton City Council who has regularly voted against increased spending at TWW—posted her own response to the suburban towns’ motion on Facebook July 10. She accused DEP and its lawyers of instigating a “money grab” at taxpayers’ expense, and said TWW customers seeking help from DEP should instead direct any complaints about the water utility to the state Board of Public Utilities. The suburban towns “have absolutely no business” working with DEP against TWW, she said.
“Hamilton, Ewing, Lawrence, Hopewell take two seats. Sit down. You’re a CUSTOMER,” Vaughn wrote.
TWW serves 225,000 people in Trenton, Ewing and parts of Hamilton, Hopewell Township and Lawrence. The four suburban municipalities do not own any part of the water system.
The four townships previously sought legal action against TWW in 2008, alleging then that Trenton raised rates for suburban customers and then improperly transferred funds intended to improve the water infrastructure elsewhere to balance the budget. The parties settled the matter in December 2012, with Trenton agreeing to regularly provide the suburban towns a range of financial information.
In Grodd Schragger’s letter, Hamilton Township contends that TWW and the city have failed to uphold their end of the settlement, and says that Trenton has continued to move money paid by suburban ratepayers into other areas of the city budget.
“[The suburban towns] have absolutely no oversight or ownership interest in the water system, including those pipes that deliver water directly to their residents,” Grodd Schragger wrote. “This amounts to taxation without representation and an impermissible subsidy of the City of Trenton’s tax base.”
Grodd Schragger concluded by saying the suburban towns want further measures taken in addition to whatever DEP has proposed, including forcing Trenton to sell all of its water infrastructure to a private entity, putting the utility under the oversight of the state Board of Public Utilities or providing the four suburbs ownership and proportional control over TWW. Each of these measures would wrest control of TWW from Trenton, with only the final option leaving the city a minority stake. More than 60% of TWW’s service area is outside the City of Trenton.
Gusciora said, in his July 10 statement, he would resist any attempt to force a sale of TWW, regardless of who attempts it.
“First and foremost, TWW belongs to the people of Trenton,” Gusciora said. “It is a highly valuable asset owned by the city. TWW is ours to modernize. It is ours to invest in. It is ours to use as a job-creation engine for our students and residents. It is ours to celebrate and to protect.”
Gusciora said the same in a June interview with Community News, vowing to fight any effort to take control of TWW away from the city. The prospect of selling and privatizing the water utility has long been unpopular with Trenton voters.
In much the same way, leaders in the TWW service area have kept a consistent message for weeks.
In a June 19 post on his blog, Lawrence Township manager Kevin Nerwinski said he would be attending a meeting with representatives from Ewing, Hamilton and Hopewell Township the following week to discuss whether the towns wanted to intercede.
Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin came out even stronger in a May 29 statement, saying “We will join, and work with, DEP in its legal action and will not stop fighting until we are satisfied that all necessary steps are taken.”