In just a few days, residents of Long Hill, New Jersey will go to the ballot box and vote on whether to sell their publicly-owned sewer system to New Jersey American Water. For some, it might seen like a no-brainer; a small town potentially facing big bills for necessary upgrades could just sell the whole thing, and let it become someone else’s headache.
But some folks in Long Hill don’t see the choice as being so simple—and they want their neighbors to know there are alternatives. Frustrated with what they saw as the town government’s support for privatization, the community group Long Hill Residents for Responsible Development has been working to raise awareness of some of the problems with selling to a corporation.
As they see it, the sewer system is Long Hill’s most valuable asset, estimated to be worth $25 million. So why would they accept the first and only offer of $11 million, less than half of the appraised value? And what happens to their rates once the company has spent the money they say they need to spend on necessary upgrades and maintenance?
Those are indeed very good questions—and many residents feel like town officials have not had important discussions with residents about all of their options, preferring to portray the deal on the table as the only game in town.
It must be pointed out that American Water Corporation—or any other private operator—is not a charity dedicated to helping municipalities fix ailing water infrastructure. If the company takes over the system, it would make its money back—and then some—through rate hikes. Public control, by comparison, means that local officials accountable to the residents of town are the ones making decisions about repairs and rates.
The truth is, there are ways to finance upgrades to the sewer system and still keep it under public control. Other townships in New Jersey have successfully done so, either by raising the money through bonds, cooperation with other municipalities (what you might call “public-public” partnerships), or by securing grant funding.
These important decisions about what to do with public property are best left to the public. These local activists simply want their neighbors to know the options that are available to them, so all voters can make an informed decision.They’ve distributed flyers, held informational sessions, and even produced a video making their case. And they hope voters will weigh the options carefully, and say no to this deal.