On Monday night we had a very important meeting where we had significant discussions on two issues: water and sewer rates and the pool rates.
First up, we received a full presentation on the Water and Sewer Rate Study we commissioned. This is the first time Verona conducted a rate study, which should have been done on these utilities in the past. This was an oversight of past Administrations and Councils. Thank you to Councilwoman Holland for bringing her expertise in utility management to the Council an educating the Council on the importance of good rate making. Good rate making allows for incremental rate increases that pay for projects and investments ongoing and over time. Verona has been very reactive in the past with how we invest in and manage the water and sewer utilities. With this study, if the Council accepts its recommendations, we can then move to a more proactive management approach.
The output of the study is that we have been historically undercharging for water rates and need to make a significant adjustment this year in order to put our utility back on track to financial strength. The report recommends increasing the volumetric rate from $6.92 today to $8.88, or a 28.3% increase. The recommendation then recommends 4% increases on that rate every year thereafter. The minimum quarterly water bill would increase from $20.76 to $26.64.
In addition we need to develop a plan to pay for the PFAS remediation and the costs to maintain the new system. The Council was presented two options. One was a flat surcharge amount of $21 per customer per quarter, that would start in 2025. The second approach would be to vary the surcharge depending on the size of the water pipe to the house, residential or commercial development. The majority of our accounts are single family homes that have the smallest pipe. Under this approach, the cost for most homes would be $18 per customer per quarter, with the largest developments and commercial properties paying up to $900 per quarter. This surcharge amount would not be increased every year and would be flat over the next five years.
Moving on to the sewer rates, our current rates are currently in a better position. However, the future investments that we need to make into the sewer plant are much more steep. We are facing a 60% increase in costs over the next 5 years with an estimated $7 million dollars of plant improvements. Again, this is a reflection of previous Administrations and Councils not adequately managing these utilities. We will be discussing the details of what needs to be invested in at an upcoming meeting with our engineers.
Given the size of the investments, the study recommends that we increase the quarterly sewer bill from $150 to $159 this year (6% increase), and then a 4% increase every year after that.
The Administration will be posting these reports online so that the public can review them. I encourage residents to email the Council with any comments here: https://www.veronanj.org/councilcontactform.
Moving on, at the end of the meeting we had a discussion on pool rates (2 hrs into the meeting). The financials on the pool have deteriorated since 2019 due to increases in costs, including debt service. COVID created a revenue shortfall that we are still working through. The chemicals to treat the pool jumped from $1.26 per gallon to $3.24 per gallon. Minimum wage has increased from $8.85 per hour to $13.50 per hour and will be $15 per hour in 2026. Our debt service is increasing to pay for past improvements (large pool ramps and splash pad) and needs to be increased due to other projects anticipated in the future.
In addition to rising costs, we finally had a conversation about pool costs that are being subsidized out of the general fund (up to $35K spread across the building and grounds, recreation, and DPW budgets) and the fact that the water used in the pool complex is not paid for through the pool utility - it is paid for by all the water and sewer customers.
I am thankful our Administration is finally getting the full financial analysis completed for this utility. However, to fix all of these issues and address rising costs, we are faced with some tough decisions. If we wanted to fix the pool rates in one year, the cost increase would need to be and additional $150. The Administration is recommending a phased approach, and the increase they proposed was 15% to all rate classes. The recommendation is that a family membership will be $605 for the season (an $85 increase), and the senior rate will be $202 (a $27 increase). We discussed that these new rates would put our pool membership fees in line with surrounding communities. We all know that our pool is much better then other local pools, so it is the Administration's position that residents are still getting a great value for the price.
The Administration is also recommending that instead of having a Family + Babysitter rates, we move to a flat fee of $150 to add a babysitter or caregiver for the season, and that upgrade can be added to any membership level. I actually made the push to rename this "caregiver," to be inclusive of adults who may have an aide that they want to bring into the pool on a regular basis. I think this opens up opportunities for more seniors and adults living with a disability to join the pool.
The Administration is still recommending that we allow outside of Verona residents into the pool at this time, which the Council is reluctant to do based on feedback from the pool membership. However, we may need to move forward with this recommendation at some point soon if more residents don't join the pool. The Administration will be working on full marketing plan to advertise the pool to increase membership.
We had a second conversation on membership for volunteer rescue squad and fire department members. The Mayor stated on the record that he is a member of the Verona Rescue Squad and that he was recusing himself from the conversation. Right now the volunteer first responders get a free membership, which totals 159 individuals. Some of the individuals who joined the pool are not Verona residents, as some of our volunteer first responders live in other communities. The Administration proposed a $25 registration fee for first responders. Councilman Roman and Deputy Mayor McEvoy expressed a desire to not impose the $25 fee, so the support is not there from the Council to move forward on the Administration's recommendation.
Any feedback on pool rates should be sent to the entire Council here: https://www.veronanj.org/councilcontactform. The new pool rates will be introduced at our next regularly scheduled meeting on February 26th.
Moving on, and going back to the top of the meeting, we had the final vote on the funding for our first ADA playground in our community, which will be at the Community Center. The playground will include also include an adult exercise area, with equipment purchased from a grant from Partners for Health, and an ADA bathroom. Grant funds received from Essex County will offset the costs of this project. We hope construction will take 6-9 months, but we will have a better date for the community soon.
We also passed ordinances for new dash cams for the police cars ($125K) and some changes to fees for lead based paint inspection. We introduced ordinances to revise our stormwater management policies and place fees for stormwater management review. As part of the meeting on Monday night we also had a public hearing on our Comcast cable franchise.
We passed all resolutions except one. The Mayor pulled an ordinance appointing professionals for 2024 in order to discuss concerns he has with the Township Manager. All other resolutions were passed, including an Administrative Consent Order from the DEP on our PFAS remediation. This order just stipulates an agreement on how Verona will proceed with our remediation project.
One final point. You may have seen that our LD 40 State elected representatives were in Verona on Friday for a meeting. I made a statement at the meeting about how disappointed I was that flooding was not added to the list of topics covered at that meeting. The only topic covered was our new public safety building. Also, it was determined that only two Council members could attend that meeting, which is why I was not there. In the past the entire governing body was invited to meet with elected officials. Finally, I am concerned that all Council members are not being equally brought into the process on what is being discussed. In my opinion, collaboration as a team can lead to better outcomes instead of working in silos. I raised these concerns with the Mayor and he noted them for the record.
We are having a special meeting next Monday, February 12th, for our annual budget workshop. This is where we go through our budget line by line with department heads. It's probably the most important meeting of our year! I hope you can make it.
Any comments on the items before the Council can be raised by sending us an email here: https://www.veronanj.org/councilcontactform.