In the last decade, Somerville, NJ has experienced significant growth and economic revitalization. Somerville spent the 90’s and the early 2000’s under the shadow of the Bridgewater Mall; yet another town littered with shuttered storefronts and young people eager to leave. Today’s Somerville is almost unrecognizable with its new abundant apartment towers and downtown shops. Even the New York Times called Somerville a “Walkable Suburban Alternative” so even the most obnoxious New York expats have taken note of this small New Jersey town.
Despite Somerville’s success story, the city government proposed selling Somerville’s sewage system to American Water for $8 million. The town warns of an inability to pay for upcoming maintenance costs and has sold the decision as inevitable due to town finances. This sale of water utility systems will lead to higher utility costs for Somerville residents in the long term. Far from being inevitable, the combination of generous tax giveaways to developers and financially irresponsible bond offerings by the government of Somerville have put the town in a situation that was entirely avoidable and still could be avoided if residents vote “No” this November 8th on the proposed sale of the wastewater system.
The current push to privatize the sewer system in Somerville is emblematic of the structural issues with Somerville’s urban renewal. From financing luxury apartment developments with PILOT schemes that required a $5.2 million bond sale to financing a massive parking deck to the tune of a $7.2 million bond sale; it’s clear that there is a capacity to finance the $9 million dollars needed for long-term maintenance on the sewer system, and that the issue is a lack of political will.
Somerville already spends about $3 million operating and maintaining their sewer system annually, and runs a surplus of about $150,000 on their sewer budget annually, per the town’s 2022 budget. An extra $1 million annually for 9 years (as the for-profit company New Jersey American Water proposes to spend) is reasonably in budget for the township without blowing out the deficit, and can easily be paid off with long-term revenue from the sewer system and by tapping into budget surpluses elsewhere. NJAW’s fearmongering proposal claims that household sewer bills will have to rise dramatically to pay for maintenance, but this ignores the ability of the town to use general funds and issue bonds to amortize the cost over time. Even a direct tax increase to pay for the project without debt (an unnecessary worst-case) would only require total municipal tax revenue (from all sources) to go up about 4%, a light burden for Somerville taxpayers. In comparison, NJAW plans to raise sewer rates permanently (on an operation that already runs a positive balance) in order to extract more profit from Somerville’s population.
Fortunately, there is still time to stop this unnecessary and misguided sale, which will only serve to increase the cost of sewer service for residents of Somerville. Vote NO on November 8th and stop this greedy company from getting its hooks into the wallets of Somerville’s people!