Embattled Newark agency dissolves, leaving city to manage water for 500,000 customers
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David Giambusso/The Star-Ledger By David Giambusso/The Star-Ledger on March 27, 2013 at 6:30 AM
NEWARK — After years of public backlash and multiple investigations, board members of the Newark Watershed Conservation Development Corp., which oversaw the purification and distribution of water for about 500,000 customers throughout northern New Jersey, have voted to dissolve the agency.
The move, which caught many city leaders by surprise, could have a major impact on water rates for residents, municipalities and businesses throughout Essex County and elsewhere. With more than $500 million in estimated repairs needed to the system, customers could see hefty increases in their water rates in coming years.
Monday’s vote could also affect residents and businesses in Passaic, Morris and Sussex counties, where Newark will now directly manage tens of thousands of acres of reservoirs and forest land it owns.
“Mayor (Cory) Booker was informed that effective May 31, 2013, the Newark Watershed Conservation & Development Corp. will dissolve, shifting all of the city’s water treatment and supply activities to … the city of Newark’s water and sewer department,” city spokeswoman Dreena Whitfield said yesterday.
Established in 1973 as a nonprofit agency to manage Newark’s extensive reservoir system, the watershed corporation had grown in recent years to become the de facto manager of the city’s entire water and sewer department.
The city contracted the agency, paying close to $11 million a year to run the water and sewer utility — a $105 million operation.
The agency is responsible for maintenance and security surrounding the 35,000 acres of forests and reservoirs Newark bought in the 19th century to provide clean water for the city. It also runs the Pequannock treatment plant in West Milford, where the water is treated and distributed to Newark and surrounding communities.
But multiple investigations over the past year, including one by The Star-Ledger, suggested profligate spending, mismanagement and a lack of transparency at the agency.
While the Booker administration said yesterday that it welcomed the dissolution, it has in the past aggressively fought attempts to quash the nonprofit agency.
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The Newark Water Group, a coalition of residents, launched a campaign last year to dissolve the agency and place it under city control. The group submitted a petition with more than 5,000 signatures to dissolve the agency and the City Council approved the unanimously. However, a judge overturned the action after the Booker administration took the matter to court.
“The Newark Water Group is gratified that the city has finally come to believe what we believe: that our water resources need to be directly under the control of our elected officials,” said Bill Chappel, one of the group members. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s a great victory for democracy.”
The reason behind the sudden dissolution remained unclear yesterday. The agency was under investigation by the state comptroller and a legal challenge was about to go into mediation. Residents and Councilmen Ras Baraka and Ron C. Rice have argued in court that the agency was operating illegally and out of the bounds of its own bylaws.
Moreover, with Booker presumably leaving Newark in 2014 to run for U.S. Senate, the agency will lose its most powerful supporter.
Linda Watkins-Brashear, the agency’s director, did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
For more than a year, city council members have voted down the contract that allowed the nonprofit agency to continue running. The Booker administration gave the watershed agency a series of emergency contracts to keep water flowing.
While the dissolution of the agency is a win for its opponents, the city will now face the arduous task of building a viable water and sewer department. The first step will be finding a director.
“The hard work now is how do we bring back the department?” Baraka said, adding that whomever the new director is, “there’s going to be a lot of work for them to do.”
Posted by Admin on Saturday, March 30th, 2013 @ 4:52AM
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