Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Municipal Water Sale Legislation Overhauled

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Municipal Water Sale Legislation Overhauled

Article excerpt

A bill that would make it easier for municipalities to sell their drinking water and sewer systems to private companies got a major overhaul Monday in the state Senate -- the measure no longer applies to any sewer systems or to the water system of the state's largest city, Newark.

It also now gives residents of a town 45 days, rather than 20, to get enough signatures to force a public vote on a proposed sale.

The measure attempts to help speed up sales of water systems to for-profit companies by stripping away a mandatory public vote on such deals and reducing oversight of the sale price by the state Board of Public Utilities -- two aspects that have drawn intense criticism.

The prime sponsor, Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge, said Monday that the bill would help attract private equity to invest in sorely needed upgrades to drinking water systems that have been neglected. He said such infrastructure improvements would not only ensure safe drinking water, but could spur the economy and generate new jobs.

"The folks opposed to this bill are being very negligent by allowing unsafe drinking water systems to continue to exist," Sarlo said.

The bill comes as many municipalities have been weighing whether to make costly investments to upgrade leaky, aging water systems or instead sell them to large for-profit companies.

Water operators are facing a huge bill to maintain aging systems, some of which lose 25 percent of their treated water through leaky pipes and burst mains before it ever reaches customers. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has estimated $4.7 billion worth of work is needed to upgrade transmission and distribution mains in New Jersey at a time when federal and state money for such projects has dwindled.

In North Jersey, Allendale and Ramsey recently considered such sales, though both ultimately decided to keep their systems.

In a story that appeared in The Record on Sunday, critics said they were concerned that the bill cut the public out of the process and could lead to water rate hikes. There is also a concern about the selling off of a natural resource.

On Monday, Newark's sprawling water system, which includes a series of reservoirs in northern New Jersey, was eliminated from the bill's purview. …

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