Scotch Plains business owners turned out in force at the council meeting Tuesday night to vent their frustration with the township’s new sewer bill.
After a half-hour presentation by the mayor that reiterated why the township decided to implement the new charge, local business owners argued why they think the bill is unfair and how it will negatively impact them.
“It came as a shock,” Susan Hung, of Hung’s Shanghai Restaurant, said of the bill. “When we got it, we had to say, ‘is this fake, is this real?’”
Hung told Patch that the restaurant had no idea the bill was coming, and that at first they worried it was a scam. She said she feels that the restaurant’s $5,100 charge is inaccurate because most of the business the restaurant does is takeout, not patrons inside using the facility's water. She said their water is used in a variety of ways that don’t necessarily lead it to the sewage plant. The water from the restaurant’s 450-gallon fish tank, for instance, is dumped outside, not put down the drain.
“This bill was calculated by water usage, but some places are only using half of that,” Hung said. “They need to consider the things they’re doing here. This isn’t revitalizing Scotch Plains.”
Mayor Nancy Malool was quick to say at the meeting that anyone who wants to dispute their sewer bill is encouraged to sit down with town manager Chris Marion to review it. Malool acknowledged that there have been several instances where businesses were able to prove that not all the water they use is actually being sent to the treatment plant, such as the water that’s used for ice machines.
“If you can justify that your water isn’t going into the sewer, we welcome you to sit down with the manager and figure it out,” she said. “The YMCA for instance, when they’re draining their pool several times a year, that’s hundreds of thousands of gallons of water that’s not going into the sewer. We’re not averse to changing bills. We’re not trying to make money.”
Thirty businesses in town also received bills that were nearly double what they should’ve been due to a technical glitch in transferring data, she said. Those have since been adjusted.
Rita’s Italian Ice owner Wayne Smith said that what concerns him is how grossly inflated his sewer bill is compared to what he was charged in his water bill.
“What bothers me is that I have to pay one cent per gallon for something I paid half a cent for,” Smith said.
Malool countered by saying that it costs more to treat the water than it does to obtain it.
Businesses, non-profits and houses of worship were all billed according to their water usage this year, using a formula that charged them $175 for the first 27,500 gallons of water, and 1 cent for every gallon used afterward.
Homeowners were charged a flat fee this year, but will be charged according to their usage next year.
Several businesses received bills this year charging them tens of thousands of dollars.
The owner of Suds and Service Laundromat on E. Second Street questioned whether it was possible for she and her husband to pay the $15,000 bill in installments, after expressing concern that they may not even be able to pay it by the new extended deadline of Nov. 30. Malool said that the reason businesses got hit with the single bill this year was because of timing issues, but that it may be possible to break up the charges in the future.
Greg Fehrenbach, the township’s budget consultant this year who was at the meeting, said that utility fees are typically treated like tax payments, which come in one bill, but that he wouldn’t rule out trying to find a loophole in the law that would allow businesses to receive multiple bills that break up the costs.
“You want to call this a utility bill, but nobody gets a utility bill once a year,” Suds and Service's owner said in response. “We’re going to be out of business because you’re worried about being in the red.”
Bill Losavio of John’s Meat Market, who joked that his business had been in town since water began, said he felt the problems that businesses face are the result of decisions being made at the state and federal government levels.
“We have been in this town for years. I love it. It’s my family,” Losavio said. “We need these tenants and need these businesses.”
The mayor acknowledged that she feels for the businesses in town that are scrambling to pay this bill now, but maintained that she feels the charge is fair.
“I look at this bill as any other utility bill,” Malool said. “You pay a phone bill, an electricity bill, a gas bill. This bill is for something you use. … For years, our homeowners subsidized what our business used and what they paid. Nonprofits paid zero before because they were tax exempt. This year, they’re paying hundreds of thousands of dollars. The bottom line is that it all equals out in the end.”
She stated further that the reason the businesses and non-profits received the bill with such short notice was because the township didn’t decide they had to implement the sewer utility until April or May. It was then adopted in early June, and from there the township had to acquire water bills from New Jersey American Water and formulate what each business should be charged based on their usage.
She said that the short amount of time they had to generate the bills is precisely why homeowners were charged a flat rate this year. There just wasn’t enough time, she said, to generate bills for the 7,000 homeowners. So to start they issued bills based on usage for the 300 businesses in town.
“Had we known how exorbitant they would be, we would have given you more notice,” Malool said.
“I had hoped that this news would have reached everyone and apparently it didn’t because a lot of people were surprised to receive the bill in the mail. I recognize that people are busy and not everybody is paying attention. Perhaps in the future we can do a better job in reaching out to the community on something of this magnitude.”
Anyone hoping to discuss their bills further with the township manager, Malool said, should reach out to him at 908-322-6700 ext. 315 or by e-mailing email@example.com.
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