An ordinance that would quadruple the borough’s water meter service charge over the next three years looks primed for passage.
Council approved the measure on first reading Tuesday, by a 3-to-2 vote down party lines. If it passes second reading on Feb. 28, it will become law.
The proposed fee increase coupled with the borough's water usage rate would align what the borough charges for water with neighboring municipalities and generate over $1.3 million in much-needed revenue, borough manager Tom Metzler said.
Councilman Ed Trawinski, who voted in favor of the service charge increase, said he didn’t like having to raise the rates, but felt it was a necessary evil.
“If we don’t do it over three years, then in a subsequent year we’re going to have to play catch up,” he said. “And the catch up will hit the taxpayers with this or even something more over a period of time. If we don’t do this, the probability is that the water rates are going to have to increase also.”
Councilwoman Lisa Swain, who had supported the increase when it was initially introduced on Feb. 7, said she’d experienced a change of heart. Both Swain and fellow Democratic councilmember Kurt Peluso opposed the water billing increase.
“I feel that with the increase in the water rates and then the fees on top of it that the taxpayers are really going to be getting an increased burden,” Swain said. “I don’t feel this is the right time to saddle the taxpayers with any additional expense.”
But time, Metzler said, is not on the borough’s side. He believes council must act now or risk severe consequences.
“If this borough does not generate another $1.5 to $2 million in new revenue in this year, we will fail next year,” he said. “Now what is a failure? We’re going to be faced with decisions such as, we need to cut $1.6 million. What department do you want to cut?”
Given the precarious economic state of the borough, Deputy Mayor John Cosgrove said he felt the revenue generated from the rate hike outweighed the hit taxpayers would take, and challenged critics to propose alternatives for balancing the budget.
“I look forward to the people who vote 'no' on this,” he said. “Their suggestions of what they’re going to cut for the deficit, where they’re going to increase revenue.”
Council’s decision to move forward with the water billing ordinance drew the ire of resident Vinko Grskovic, who spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion.
“I want to speak out publicly against Mr. Metzler’s proposed tax increase,” said Grskovic, referring to the proposed water fee hike. “That’s exactly what your proposal to raise the water rates are. We don’t have a choice as consumers as to whether or not we’re going to choose the Fair Lawn water company as the source of our water.”
In an unusually frank response, Metzler acknowledged that the fee bump did equate to a tax increase, but said he felt it was a necessary one given the borough’s economic situation.
“The driving factor behind the recommendation to council is to get this borough to a point where we’re back on financially stable ground,” he said. “Because make no mistake about it -- this is the year that we make it or we break it. And this council is going to be forced to make some very, very difficult decisions.”
While Grskovic’s suggestion to sell off cherished community hubs was immediately dismissed by council, Metzler said even the borough’s ability to make smaller scale cuts had reached a breaking point and that generating revenue was the only option.
“While it is the easy thing to say, let’s cut service, we’ve done that,” said Metzler, who cited cuts to the police department and extremely stretched staffs in the municipal court office, recycling department and health department.
“If we don’t generate that revenue this year,” Metzler said, “next year, your surplus will be gone.”
And without a surplus, Metzler said, the borough would have to entertain drastic measures like selling off assets.
“Once you [deplete the surplus],” he said. “There’s no coming back.”
If the water service charge is enacted, residents will pay $20 more for their water service charge each year for the next three years so that by 2014, each household will be paying at least $60 more in water bills per year, not including the possibility of usage rate increases.
Metzler initially proposed tripling the service charge immediately, but council decided that a gradual increase would be more manageable for residents.