New Brunswick City Council Approves American Water Contract and Names New Water Director

New Brunswick City Council Meeting September 17,2014

New Brunswick City Council Meeting September 17,2014

city-council-meeting-sept-17th-2014-docxBy Michael Benavides

The New Brunswick water utility will be managed by American Water under a new contract that will allow the system to remain under local control.

The $867,880 contract, approved Sept. 17, will run through Sept. 30, 2015 and be paid out in monthly increments. It calls for American Water to provide licensed water treatment operators and management staff to oversee the city’s water treatment utility and supervise the city’s current water treatment personnel. The city will be responsible for conducting the required regulatory reviews and filings, operating treatment and pump stations, creating and implement capital improvement, health and safety, environmental management and treatment optimization plans.

The contract comes in response to the resignation of the city’s previous water utility director, Frank Marascia. Marascia and Plant Supervisor Keith Smith resigned after they allegedly filed false reports with the state Department of Environmental Protection regarding water quality in the wake of damage to the utility caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. A temporary agreement with American Water was in place over the summer, according to New Brunswick Today.

City officials said the contract – and the recent hiring of a new water utility administrator — would prevent the layoff of about 25 water department employees because the contract will allow the city to meet state requirements. Had the contract not been signed and the new administrator not been hired, the state would have forced the closure of the utility, officials said.

Jennifer Bradshaw, the city public information officer, said the contract would provide greater accountability when it comes to protecting the city’s water supply.

“The American Water contract does provide a level of redundancy, which provides us with additional safeguards in terms of monitoring and testing our water and staffing needed to run the plant,” Bradshaw said.

The contract was protested by about a dozen residents at the Sept. 17 meeting, who held up signs that read, “Flush the American Water deal.” Residents say they were not informed of the deal and they are concerned about its impact. The temporary contract had been criticized over the summer by several city board members, according to New Brunswick Today.
Rutgers student Lindsey Sigmund said the deal “is unfair because it denies the residents of New Brunswick a say on the issue.” Sigmund said she believes that American Water will put profits before safety when it comes to the city’s water supply.

Environmental activist Jim Walsh raised concerns about cost, saying water bills could skyrocket because of the water utility repairs. New Brunswick Today reported that repairs to the city’s water utility are expected cost an estimated $3.75 million and will take until 2015 to complete.

“The city should hold an independent investigation on the specifics of the American Water contract,” Walsh said.
City Administrator Thomas A. Loughlin III said a water rates for 2015 have not been set. The American Water contract does not say anything about water rates. Loughlin said the American Water deal and the hiring of a new director would spare the city’s remaining water department employees from immediate layoffs.

“If the city failed to reach an agreement with American Water within 45 days, then the state would be required to shut down the city’s water treatment plant,” Loughlin said.

The city announced last week that Alexei Walus, who has served the last 12 years as chief operator for the Brick Township Municipal Utilities Authority, as the new director of the city’s water utility. If the council approves the appointment Wednesday, Walus will be paid $105,000 annually and begin work Nov. 3.

Water treatment operator John S. Tarnoski said the deal is good for workers.

“The day-to-day operations are still in the employee’s hands,” said Tarnoski. “If we didn’t approve this deal then roughly 25 employees would be out of the job.”

Council President Rebecca Escobar, who abstained from the 4-0 vote because she was unaware that it was on the agenda, said the deal does not privatize the city’s water department.

“We are in control of the water department and American Water is providing us with water treatment facilities,” Escobar said.
Loughline agreed.

“This deal is just an authorization to enter into an operations support and management services agreement with American Water Operations and Maintenance Incorporated,” Loughlin said.

The city’s Attorney William Hamilton also expressed his confidence in the American Water contract. “The American Water deal was the best deal we could get that would be favorable to the city,” Hamilton said.