‘None of this is fair to be honest with you’

Hopewell Borough business owners share concerns over increases in water/sewer rates

Hopewell Borough residents and commercial businesses will pay more for water and sewage bills this year.

Council President Krista Weaver, Councilman David Mackie, Councilwoman Samara McAuliffe, Councilwoman Debra Stuhler, and Councilwoman Heidi Wilenius reluctantly voted and adopted an ordinance on the increased range of rates each quarter for water/sewer usage by residents and commercial businesses at a meeting on April 4. Councilwoman Sheri Hook was absent from the meeting.

The rates went into effect on April 10.

The borough needs to raise an additional $220,000 for the water department to cover the costs of the department before the end of the year, Councilman David Mackie explained.

The department was more than $108,000 over budget in 2023 for water and other unintended expenses.

“It has to be in the next three quarters,” Mackie said of the additional costs. “So, the rate increases we are proposing are designed to do that.”

For the first 2,000 gallons of water used or less in each quarter, the rate is $39.45. This is the minimum charge, which also applies at residences and commercial businesses where water usage is not metered.

Residential homes and commercial businesses using more than the first 2,000 gallons will be charged $22.99 per 1,000 gallons. The rate is only up to 5,000 gallons.

The increased water rates are:

  • 5,000-10,000 gallons – $23.90 for every 1,000 gallons.
  • 10,000-20,000 gallons – $24.88 per every 1,000 gallons.
  • 20,000-30,000 – $25.87 per every 1,000 gallons.
  • 30,000-40,000 – $26.92 per every 1,000 gallons.
  • Exceeding 40,000 – $27.99 per every 1,000 gallons.

When it comes to the sewer rates the first 10,000 gallons or less is $89.59, which is the minimum charge. Homes and businesses exceeding 10,000 gallons, up to 50,000 gallons will face a sewer charge of $2.05 per 1,000 gallons.

For more than 50,000 gallons, the rate increases to $3.14 for every 1,000 gallons.

A significant water leak on a residential property found last year was the main reason for the water department being over budget in 2023, council members said. The township, which as an interconnection installed with New Jersey American Water, had to purchase a lot of additional water from the company.

The leak in the line was an inch in diameter and was between the borough’s system and the residential house.

“It was a very large leak that could not be seen or serviced,” Mackie said. “Once that leak was fixed in October 2023. Our water consumption dropped by 20,000 gallons a day.

“That is money we can’t recover because the meter on a residential service like that is at the house and the leak is between the meter and the street, so there is no way of recovering that money.”

The borough was tip-offed about a problem with the water system last year when a spike in water demand occurred. Even with the spike in demand and bills, the borough did not expect a leak of that size, council members said.

Officials had to hire a leak specialist to find the leak with about 11 miles of piping the borough owns and about seven to eight miles of residential service lines.

“They were able to find the leak in October 2023 that was probably after we lost 6 million gallons of water that year we had to replace,” Mackie said, noting the borough now has a permanent leak detection system.

Once a month a leak detection contractor drives through the borough and downloads data from 65 permanent sensors that listen to flow in the pipes in the middle of the night.

“The sensors are able to hear the sound of water running when there is not much traffic at night.”

There are 764 connections to the borough’s water system servicing about 2,000 people, officials said.

The borough’s source of water comes from two areas – one is well No. 4 and the other is the interconnection with New Jersey American Water.

“One place where there is not flexibility is filling the gap from last year and coming up with a budget that gets us to an even,” Mayor Ryan Kennedy said. “Unfortunately, as a regulated municipal utility we don’t have any choice but to have a budget that equals our expenses.”

He noted that the amount the borough needed to raise this year was a fixed number.

“The only thing we can do is to figure out how to divide up this increase amongst us,” Kennedy said. “If we were not able to do that, our utility would no longer be self-liquidated.

“We would not be able to borrow money and it would be a fiscal disaster for the town. We would not be able to keep the lights on if we did not choose this step (raise rates).”

Officials said their intention is to drop rates again once they recoup the prior year’s loss.

“None of this is fair to be honest with you,” Kennedy said. “Our question was how best to allocate that across the 750 to 800 users of water here.”

Several business owners pushed back against the increased water and sewer rates by spotlighting the financial impact on their ability to do business in the borough.

“As a relatively new arrival here and a business owner and a person poised to invest in the community this is a variable being thrown at me unexpectedly and I do not find it fair,” said Otto Zizak, who owns Ottoburger with his wife Maria, which is a burger restaurant on East Broad Street.

Zizak, who said he was excited to invest and become part of the community, emphasized the impact on businesses working on very thin margins.

“… Me not being a rich guy and reaching into my savings is going to result in a very brutal question of am I going to continue or not.”

Barry Klein, owner of Peasant Grill with his wife Michelle, which is also a restaurant on East Broad Street, estimated that the restaurant uses about 150,000 gallons of water.

“…I think that people will cut their usage and I think you guys will still have a shortfall. Because I know I will cut my usage,” he said, noting he will go from a bill of $2,600 a quarter to $2,050 with their decreased usage.

“… Maybe I’m wrong but that is how I see it.”

Klein said he understands the borough needs to raise the money.

“There is no good answer, but I want to say in front of you guys here tonight this unfortunate situation was the first time in 17 years that my wife and I sat down and said you know what maybe this is not for us,” he replayed.

Nathaniel Davidson, owner of The Hopewell Laundress, a laundromat on East Broad Street, explained that they use a lot of water, and the new rates are going to be a $2,000 increase quarterly for him.

“The only way to use less water for us would be to do less business, which is not an option. I kind of feel like we got cornered on this one,” he added.

“A 54% increase is just ridiculous. We are seeing increases in all other areas of our expenses. We have only been there since coronavirus started and did not really come in at a good time.”

Davidson shared that his biggest concern is that the water rates will continue to rise.

“These are unattainable rates and just does not give us much of an outlook. We provide service to a lot of poorer people in the neighborhood, so they are coming to our laundromat to do laundry where they don’t have the option anywhere else also,” he said, calling the rate increases devasting.

“These increased expenses are really limiting for us and like I said we can’t use less water. You are making it difficult for commercial businesses to stay in business here.”

Lyn Farrugia, the owner of Aunt Chubby’s Luncheonette, said the borough needs to consider small businesses.

“This is a huge increase for all of us,” she said, saying she was shocked when she saw the increases. “The people who are going to suffer the most are not the wealthy.”

“You may think the businesses are the wealthiest in town, but the profit margin is so narrow this hits us proportionally hard. We are finding out just now. It is a big deal. It felt like a slap in the face.”

Mayor Ryan Kennedy expressed they have a commitment to find ways to cut the rates.

“We are hopeful there whether that means somehow adjusting [the rates] again next year or exploring the sale of the system,” he said. “Our goal is to not charge more for water than someone else is charging.”

Wilenius explained that they could have voted no to the increases.

“We can’t do that to our town, but I think we are all committed up here to mitigating this as quickly as we are able,” she said.

“We can’t go backwards in time and change the series of events that got us here. Voting no and leaving our town in financial ruin is also not an option.”

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