P2P Assistance Helps Sewer Utility Comply with EOs

Early in February, 2022, the NJ P2P Network was contacted. A small sewer system in South Jersey was in the midst of a transition: the administrator had just come on board to fill the position her predecessor had occupied for two decades. The legal advisor had retired and the replacement had not yet been appointed. And, as the administrator and her small staff tried to plow through their workload, a case of COVID and jury duty complicated the picture.  

In the midst of all this, the new administrator was trying to understand several Executive Orders issued by Governor Murphy that dealt with customer accounts that were in arrears and possible service shut-offs. The administrator already knew that shut-off moratoria discussed in the Governor’s Executive Orders did not impact her system. Sewer systems, as a matter of public health, never shut off sewer service to an occupied home or building. The administrator also understood that the Governor had barred utilities from collecting unpaid bill balances and that for certain periods covered by the order, interest and late fees, could not be imposed and possibly could not be collected at all. But the devil, as they say, was in the details. The EOs covered different time periods and had differences in language. Would she be permitted to send accounts to the municipality for tax liens? If so, which ones? Covering what period?  

            The administrator reached out to the NJ Water Utility Peer-to-Peer Network. for help. Within a few hours, the executive director from one of the P2P utilities that volunteer to be “on call” reached out to her. He shared a legal analysis and urged her to contact him to discuss.  

            “I truly appreciate you sharing this information,” the administrator emailed to say later. The P2P assistance, she wrote, helped her understand the Governor’s orders and make a plan that she could clarify with the soon-to-be-appointed legal advisor. 

Case Histories of Government Utilities Helping Other Utilities

“In our business, it is not a race to the finish or to have the right answer,” says Francis J. Bonaccorso, Assistant Superintendent, Joint Meeting of Essex and Union Counties (JMEUC). “It’s more like we are taking a hike with a group. We make sure everyone is on the trail, everyone has the same map, and no one is lost.” This is the philosophy that is bedrock in the culture of government water and sewer service providers. It is what NJ Peer-to-Peer program seeks to illuminate and magnify. 

Bonaccorso says the JMEUC staff is always on the phone or on email with colleagues, asking how they handle a situation or whether they have faced a similar situation or event. The JMEUC purchasing department is often reaching out to other facilities with questions involving cooperative purchasing agreements and State Contract bidding.  JMEUC operations and maintenance department staff often visit other facilities, including Middlesex County Utilities Authority, Linden Roselle, Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, and Rahway Valley Sewerage Authority to view their treatment processes or understand how a particular piece of equipment operates.  In turn, colleagues from other facilities visit JMEUC. “When another system’s laboratory or equipment fails or for some other reason isn’t able to function normally, JMEUC has shared our laboratory space,” Bonaccorso says. 

Sharing With Other Utilities Improves Operations For All

Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority (PARSA) operates a 12-mgd regional interceptor system in central New Jersey, serving a population of 135,000 in eight municipalities spread across three counties. Each municipality funds and maintains its own collection system. Sometimes, however, the municipal collection system staff does not have on hand what they need to address an issue with the storm sewer or sanitary sewer. PARSA often helps them. PARSA staff may assist with high-pressure cleaning. Finding a sewer line rupture can be a challenge. PARSA will help its neighbors by lending its closed-circuit television (CCTV) to help with the diagnosis. It sometimes volunteers its vac truck when neighbors are doing high-profile construction projects such as a sewer bypass.  

Ocean County Utilities Authority (OCUA) also assists other utilities with general information requests, including copies of documents, contracts related to procurements, or other topics. Executive Director Keith Marcoon says, “We have shared information related to labor contract negotiations or salaries. On occasion, we have also engaged with utilities and their engineers to meet and discuss OCUA’s experience with significant capital improvement projects.” 

How A Meeting Of Water Colleagues Helped A Small Town

The small town of Roosevelt in Monmouth County was at a crossroads with its water and sewer systems. The longtime manager of the systems was retiring. They had a list of upgrades and repairs, but they were not sure how to stage them so that the cost and rate impact could be manageable. A member of the town council reached out to AEA for help. Three authority executive directors toured the sewer treatment plant, the water plant, and the well site. Gazing up at the town’s multi-story water tank, the water/sewer superintendent and town leaders discussed its condition. In a small caravan, the group toured the sewage collection and water distribution systems. Then the group gathered around a table in the town hall, discussing options for the future. The executive directors noted one issue at the water treatment plant that needed to be a high priority repair. They pointed out that addressing infiltration and inflow in the sewer collection system would save operations costs and those funds could then reduce other expenses and mitigate rate hikes. They helped outline a preliminary capital project schedule. The visit provided the town with disinterested, professional advice at no cost.  

Four-way Partnership to Help Eliminate Combined Sewer Overflows

The Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA), the regional wastewater authority for Camden City and 36 suburban municipalities, partnered with the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), the NJ I-Bank (NJIB)B, and the City of Camden (City) to assist Camden with improvements to its combined sewer system through the NJIB’s low-interest loan program. Camden’s resource limitations were a barrier that made it more difficult for the City to do the planning, design, permitting, application, and implementation steps necessary to qualify for Water Bank funding. Accordingly, the CCMUA,NJDEP, NJ I-Bank and Camden City established a four-party partnership. CCMUA took on the planning, design, permitting and construction of certain projects to improve Camden City’s combined sewer system. The NJDEP and NJIB reimbursed CCMUA for out-of-pocket costs.The City was responsible for paying back the loan. A portion of the loan that could have covered CCMUA staff time was instead made available for cost adjustments that might become necessary during the implementation of the project. The four-way arrangement helped overcome the resource constraints that had been a barrier. City residents gained the benefit of water infrastructure improvement at the lowest possible cost. CCMUA “broke  even” financially–out-of-pocket costs were borne by CCMUA ratepayers. Officials involved with this partnership say the approach could be replicated in the context of the NJ Peer-to-Peer program — with one utility providing support enabling another to secure an NJIB loan. The supporting utility might prefer to take a reimbursement for the administrative and staff time to earn additional revenue.  

Camden Collaborative Initiative Makes Strides

The CCMUA also partnered with the NJDEP, USEPA Region 2, and the City of Camden, as well as more than 60 environmental and community service non-profit partners to create the Camden Collaborative Initiative (CCI).  The CCI would be volunteer “bureau of environmental affairs” for the City, identifying environmental challenges, developing plans to address them, and then implementing solutions.  The CCI has assisted with the creation of dozens of rain gardens and several river-front parks. Through its efforts, brownfield areas have been remediated. CCI has supported programs to raise awareness about lead in drinking water and illegal dumping. It has conducted environmental education. Its work has reduced air emissions, and created hundreds of green jobs. The CCI has been so successful since its inception in 2013 that the State of New Jersey has created the Community Collaborative Initiative that is now operating in Camden and 11 other environmental justice communities across the State. 

How Working With Peers Saved A South Jersey Authority

Another MUA, this one in South Jersey, was at a crossroads. The township, which had a significant pension liability, was not sure it needed an authority any longer. The authority had several system upgrades and repairs pending, and a several million dollar undesignated fund balance which could address a significant portion of the cost of these needs. The authority worried that if it were dissolved, the cash on hand for the repairs would be swept away for other non-water/sewer needs such as the pension funding. A delegation from AEA met twice with the authority board and staff, received tours, and reviewed budgets and capital plans. They commended the staff on the overall good condition of the systems, and they suggested ways of strengthening the relationship between the authority and town. They also noted the importance of hiring outside professional consultants who had a strong grounding in bidding and budget rules, Public Contracting laws, and other rules and statues. Subsequently when the authority was conducting a search for an executive director, the AEA advisors assisted. The authority was able to hire an experienced and professional executive director who oversaw major capital projects and helped the authority successfully apply for low-interest loans to pay for them.