Out of sight, out of mind – that’s why most Princeton residents don’t understand what the sewer system does and why it needs to be maintained.
But Princeton officials do understand and they are beginning to take steps to ensure that the aging sewer system, which snakes underneath the town’s streets, will be maintained after years of neglect.
David Goldfarb, who chairs the Princeton Sewer Operating Committee, pushed the Princeton Council to tackle the twin issues of deferred maintenance and understaffing at the council’s Feb. 16 meeting.
“The residents don’t see the problems. They do not see the sewer and they are not aware of the problems. They see potholes, but they do not see sewers,” Goldfarb said.
Goldfarb, who served on the former Princeton Borough Council before Princeton Borough and Princeton Township merged, said Princeton Borough’s sewer manager was responsible for the sewers in both towns.
But since the two towns consolidated in 2013, the position of sewer manager was eliminated and the sewer maintenance operation was absorbed into the Infrastructure and Operations Division of the new Municipality of Princeton, he said.
Maintenance has been deferred and the aging sewer system is in disrepair, Goldfarb said.
“You must commit resources, including an increase in staffing, to maintain the sewer system properly. What is in place does not work. You will have to think about increasing the staff so the sewers get the attention they need,” Goldfarb said.
The need for increased staffing was outlined in a memorandum prepared by sewer engineer Andrew Filippi. It noted that the Sewer Division had a staff of 10 employees, but it has shrunk to six employees – a foreman and five workers.
Filippi requested an increase in staffing to a total of 22 employees over time. He requested hiring three additional employees in 2021.
Given the understaffing, the town has hired outside contractors to handle some of the work, but it would be less expensive if the town had its own employees to do the work, Goldfarb and Filippi told the council. Contractors typically build a 10% profit margin into their bids.
When Princeton Councilman David Cohen asked how the town would pay for the additional employees – through the sewer trust fund, sewer fees or general tax revenues – Goldfarb replied that the money would come from sewer fees.
“There is no question that sewer fees will have to increase if we staff the sewer operations properly. There will be some efficiencies (gained through increased staffing), but staffing will not pay for itself,” Goldfarb said.
Sewer improvements cannot be done for free, and sewer users will have to pay more, he said. Sewer fees are set by an ordinance adopted by the Princeton Council, in conjunction with the sewer budget. A property owner’s sewer fee is based on the amount of water that is used.
Princeton Councilwoman Eve Niedergang, who is the council’s liaison to the Princeton Sewer Operating Committee, said the request to hire three additional employees in 2021 “seems like a reasonable achievement. I hope we can move forward with it.”
“This is not going to be cheap,” Niedergang said.
However, there are areas where savings may be gained, she said, such as stopping inflow and infiltration – extra flow into the sewer system from groundwater and rainwater.
The extra water that goes into the sewer system is treated by the Stony Brook Regional Sewerage Authority, along with the normal sewage flow. The towns that belong to the Stony Brook Regional Sewerage Authority are charged for the cost of treating the water that flows into the treatment plant.
Princeton Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros favored looking into Filippi’s suggestions. It would be “pound wise and penny foolish” to ignore the recommendations, and most costly in the long run, she said.
Princeton Councilman David Cohen said the town would need a five-year plan to implement the recommendations in Filippi’s memorandum. He said he would like to have more details about the amount of money that would be needed, and how much those recommendations would save.
Filippi said it costs the town about $5 million annually for the Stony Brook Regional Sewerage Authority to treat the wastewater, and about half of that wastewater comes from groundwater and rainwater that finds its way into the sewer system.
“It’s not actually sewage, but the town is getting billed for it. It is not possible to remove all of it, and what you do remove will not (result) in a one-to-one reduction in what we are paying, but it is still a significant amount of potential savings,” Filippi said.
Mayor Mark Freda said town officials should meet with Filippi to review the memorandum, what the immediate needs are and how they would fit into a five-year plan. The Personnel Committee also should review the memorandum, too, he said.