OFFICIALS LOOK TO CLARK FOR SEWER FEE

CranfordPatch
Maryrose Mullen
May 5, 2011

Township officials are looking to Clark for inspiration on how to best change the Cranford sewer fee billing practices, aiming to create a sliding scale determined by how often residents use the sewers. At this time, Cranford's fees are determined by property value.

Democrat mayor Daniel Aschenbach is spearheading the project to tweak the fee, informing the public about the initiative at a meeting April 11. The Township Committee sent township attorney Daniel McCarthy to a meeting with Clark employees to find out more about their system.

"Each year someone’s bill will be adjusted based on useage," he said, adding that he believes the fee will then be fairer to residents.

Clark charges for sewer service on a sliding scale based on the water bill of each household and residents pay a minimum sewer fee of $225 for 0 to 100,000 gallons of water used in the prior year, Clark Business Adminstrator John Laezza said in a phone interview with Patch. If residents exceed 100,000, it's 2 cents for each extra gallon. Senior citizens and residents eligible for tax deduction are the exception.

"Then you only pay half [the price]," Laezza said.

Water use is only tracked from October to April, to avoid counting the heavy water use in the summer -- with residents washing their cars and installing sprinklers on their lawns.

"We had the forsight earlier than most to see the impact this would have on our tax levy and budget," said Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso in a previous Patch article about sewer fees in Union County. He added that Clark began the use-based utility in 2006. "The grotesque increases these people have given – our municipal budget cannot absorb them. So we started this sewer utility, and it worked out well. The bigger users pay more."

Laezza added that he has been holding conversations with Cranford township attorney Daniel McCarthy, who asked him about the system to gain insight into how Clark bills residents.

McCarthy said he tapped Clark for information to help the Township Committee create a system they were satisfied with.

"I’ve tried to develop some information so the township committee can have a [sewer billing] system that they're comfortable with," he said. "We have a neighbor that’s been doing that has been very helpful, very forthcoming with information."

If the Township Committee ultimately decides to inact a use-based system, it will need to introduce its tweaked billing system on or around May 24. That's the day the Township Committee votes on its budget for the year, added Cranford Financial Officer Jeff Theriault.

The reason for the deadline is accouting, he explained – $1,700,000 has been added in the budget as projected sewer fee revenue.

"That ordinance should piggyback off the adopted budget," he said. "They go hand in hand."

The sewer fee has been a contentious issue in town hall since last summer, when the Township Committee split the sewer fee from the main property tax and placed the cost in a separate bill. It was an accounting manuever designed to pull the township budget underneath a tax limit imposed by the state government.

Afterwards officials heard complaints from residents, many saying they wanted the sewer bill based off of how much they used the system rather than their property values.

Many also said they wanted to see the sewer charges placed back in the property tax bill, saying that the accounting manuever was a cop-out and that budget cuts at the municipal level needed to be made.

In December the Township Committee passed an ordinance which reinstalled the sewer charges in the main property tax bill, with officials that supported it saying they voted 'yes' in reponse to resident complaints.

This April however, the Township Committee found out that the ordinance did nothing.

Cranford municipal employees informed the Township Committee that the separated sewer tax was not in fact repealed due to a clerical error.

As a result, Theriault said, if the Township Committee decides not to move forward with the ordinance to install a use-based system, the financial office will be collecting the fee in a process similar to last year - with a separated sewer bill.