Joseph F. Berenato
Stormwater utility defeated
HAMMONTON—Members of the public addressed town council regarding the possible formation of a stormwater utility at their regular meeting on August 29.
Dan Bachalis, the chair of the Hammonton Environmental Commission and the Hammonton Lake Water Quality Advisory Committee, was the first to broach the topic, having presented a draft resolution to council.
“I’m hoping that you’ll approve a resolution of support for a letter of interest in a DEP [New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection] program that will provide free consulting services to do a feasibility study regarding the formation of a stormwater utility—with no
obligation to create that utility as a result of having done the study,” Bachalis said.
Bachalis read into the record letters of support from members of the public on the topic, including Hammonton residents Robert Roesch and Lynee Locicero, both of the Lake Water Quality Advisory Committee, and Donna Connor of Mullica Twp., before continuing.
“I hope we see our way to accepting it and going for it,” Bachalis said.
Later in the meeting, Mayor Stephen DiDonato addressed the public regarding the topic and the draft resolution.
“There’s some money out there to finish a study for stormwater. This has nothing to do with a tax, a rain tax or anything else. It’s to finish a study that was started that was incomplete. Am I correct?” DiDonato said.
Bachalis affirmed that assertion.
“A couple of years ago, we received a grant from the League of Conservation Voters education fund. We contracted with a group, Princeton Hydro, to conduct a feasibility study regarding the formation of a stormwater utility—not to create a stormwater utility, but just to look at the pros and cons, the pluses and minuses of such an entity,” Bachalis said.
Bachalis said that state climatologists have predicted that stormwater flooding will increase in the coming years. In response to that, Bachalis said, the DEP has made funds available for the formation of stormwater utilities and other technical assistance, including free consulting for a feasibility study for said utility.
“One of the priority groups that is included under that request for letters of intent are entities that have begun a feasibility study but could not complete it due to lack of sufficient funding, which is Hammonton to a T,” Bachalis said.
Councilman Edward Wuillermin proposed an alternative resolution to the one Bachalis presented to council. Wuillermin said that, of the $10 million to be distributed by the DEP, $2 million is for stormwater utility feasibility studies, and $1 million pot is for “technical assistance for resiliency planning.”
“We have been designated by DEP to move up from a Tier B community for stormwater management regulations into a Tier A, which is going to require the town to move up quite a bit in terms of what we are responsible for doing in order to obtain the permit that is required to move up into Tier A,” Wuillermin said.
Wuillermin proposed, instead of applying to DEP for the study, that the town instead focus on the aforementioned requirements for Tier A.
“The deadline approaching to get that permit is pretty close,” Wuillermin said.
Councilman Steven Furgione commented further, noting that Hammonton’s Department of Public Works received an email from the New Jersey Conference of Mayors on the topic stating that there are currently 104 municipalities classified as Tier B, and all 104 are being reclassified as Tier A.
“There will no longer be Tier B, so our stormwater management will be more complicated as a result of moving from Tier B to Tier A,” Furgione said.
Furgione said that only three municipalities in Atlantic County that are Tier B: Hammonton, Estell Manor and Mullica Twp.
“All three of these communities will be Tier A. All other municipalities in Atlantic County are already Tier A,” Furgione said.
Furgione read the last paragraph of the email into the record.
“‘The department’—meaning the NJDEP—’is planning a grant program to help reassign municipalities with this transition,’ transition going from B to A. ‘It is planned to be similar in nature to the grants that were offered to Tier A municipalities in 2004, when the program was first created. It is anticipated to be available later this year,’” Furgione said.
Furgione said that the email also stated that there are grants currently available for stormwater projects and technical assistance available for resilience planning and for stormwater utilities.
“Resilience planning, as it relates to this NJDEP grant program, is specifically related to communities that were impacted by Hurricane Ida, so resiliency planning would not apply here,” Furgione said.
Furgione said that he would also rather the town apply for grants related to technical assistance than for the feasibility study.
“In my opinion, to take money from the state for something—to create a stormwater utility—that we’ve already discussed in May that we don’t plan on doing, I think is detrimental for a couple of reasons. Number one, I don’t want to take money or resources away from a town who actually needs this feasibility study,” Furgione said.
Furgione said that municipalities along the state’s shoreline have “major, major flooding problems” and could better be served with the feasibility grant.
“I would rather go to DEP and get money so we can go from B to A. I think that’s where our priority should be,” Furgione said.
Councilman William Olivo echoed Furgione’s sentiments.
“If we don’t really have intentions of going forward with that program and creating a new tax—because that’s what it would be—I don’t think we should go ahead with it,” Olivo said.
Bachalis said that the two grant programs are not mutually exclusive.
“You can still go for the Tier B to Tier 1 study on its own and get that money, and do exactly what you’re saying you want to do. The provision of no-cost consultation services is on a separate track, and that program—the applications, the letters of intent—are due September 23,” Bachalis said, noting that the additional study would complete the process begun with Princeton Hydro.
Councilman Thomas Gribbin said that he also did not think the two programs were mutually exclusive, and that the town could request funding from both.
“I do not support the formation of a stormwater utility, and I do not support needlessly taxing our residents. I do support having all of the information and having all of the facts available, doing our due diligence and fully understanding the issues, fully understanding the costs, fully understanding the benefits or the detriments—and I don’t believe we met that with a partial study,” Gribbin said.
Wuillermin responded, referencing the presentation that Clay Emerson, Princeton Hydro’s technical director, gave at council’s May 23 meeting.
“I would suggest to you that we heard enough information from that, if you were doing a diligent hearing of the presentation, to understand that it is going to be a costly program to implement, just in terms of the institutional infrastructure that’s going to have to be created,” Wuillermin said.
Wuillermin said that a new billing system would need to be created, as would determining if impervious surfaces drive said billing, along with associated fees.
Bachalis spoke in response.
“We do need to develop a rate structure that is fair, equitable, transparent and appealable, and we do need to suss out the organizational changes that would need to be made in order to facilitate billing, collection and whatnot. All of those elements would be part of the feasibility study—and it can’t be entirely impossible, because there are over 1,700 stormwater utilities in 41 states around our country,” Bachalis said.
Wuillermin conceded that stormwater is an issue in New Jersey, which he said is largely urbanized but is not the case in Hammonton.
“Hammonton, of the 40 square miles, a good third of that is a park. Another third of that is an agricultural production district, and a smaller percentage of it is in a forest district. Of the 28 or 30 percent that’s remaining, it’s a Pinelands town, much of which is built out; we’re talking about only sporadic infill development,” Wuillermin said.
Wuillermin said that that the existing built area is “the only thing that’s going to carry the water.”
“Is that going to generate enough revenue to make the stormwater utility financially viable? The money that it does raise— that limited amount of area that we’re talking about that has impervious surface to any substantial extent—is that going to be sufficient just to pay for the institutional infrastructure of what’s going to be necessary to establish and carry the stormwater utility in and of itself?” Wuillermin said.
Wuillermin said that existing physical stormwater infrastructure is unlikely to be replaced, noting that it had been attempted in the past, particularly on Fourth Street.
“The major drainage on what was derisively called ‘The Bellevue River,’ we were prevented from doing anything that would alleviate that because the existing infrastructure—regardless of whether it needed to be replaced—we were confined to having the stormwater system not greater than what was pre-development conditions on the road,” Wuillermin said.
Councilman Sam Rodio, who lives on Fourth Street, commented further.
“Five houses off of Bellevue Avenue, I live there. When the water crests—for 30-some years I’ve lived there—when the water crests, the water comes up to my front door. I have to live with that,” Rodio said.
Rodio said that the town did try to improve drainage in that area but was unsuccessful.
“If you go up 206, across from the 206 Market, there’s 55-gallon drums sitting there that, where that creek runs north, take 60 percent of our water. We went to the state and begged the state: ‘Please do something. Try to help us,’” Rodio said.
Rodio said that, this past winter, Public Works Department Head Scott Rivera and public works employees worked for four months to clear Cedar Branch Stream with no help from county or state agencies.
“When you get done with these studies, what are we going to do? Because the state is going to do nothing—zero—as far as I’m concerned, because they’ve shown me nothing so far. Scott and his men go in that creek, bust their ass day after day,” Rodio said.
“Where are we going with all these studies, year after year, study after study, year after year, money after money could be put into that ditch, making it wider? Make it bigger and get the water out of town. No, we’re going to do study after study after study,” Rodio said.
Gribbin, who lives on Virginia Avenue and has experienced similar flooding issues, agreed with Rodio, noting that he appreciated Rodio’s “anger.”
“I am also angry that the state, and the county, after we’ve asked them, did not pony up and provide us with the help that we needed. I’m upset with our county leaders., I’m upset with our assemblymen, I’m upset with our state senator, that they did not provide us, after numerous requests, for what we asked for. Do I think that we should tally up a bill and send it to them? Yes. For the amount of work that our men put in? Sure,” Gribbin said.
Wuillermin returned to the topic of the feasibility study, noting that it was “telling” that Hammonton was being asked to be one of the first municipalities in New Jersey to consider the utility.
“With all due respect to how many exist in other states, none exist at the present time in New Jersey—the most urbanized state in the United States,” Wuillermin said.
Ivette Guillermo-McGahee, founder of Allies in Caring—located at 100 S. Second St. in Hammonton—addressed council on the topic, stating that it was her understanding that the purpose of the utility is to “protect the health of our families.”
“If this is to protect the health of my children and the children in the community, it would be worth it to be paying more—to pay more taxes if we want to protect our children,” Guillermo-McGahee said.
Guillermo-McGahee then invited Jaclyn Rhoads—assistant executive director at the PPA—to address council.
“Hammonton is the only one that has taken the first step, so I say pat yourself on the back. Why not be a leader in a whole state of places that have more impervious surface?” Rhoads said.
Rhoads said that Hammonton should be proud for what it’s done.
“There are places that are considering it now, after what Hammonton has done: Camden city, Willingboro, many other places up north. For Hammonton being the capital that it is for things that we know and love, why not be a leader for all these other things? We always talk to other towns in the Pinelands about Hammonton being an example. You’ve been the leader for so many other things; why not now?” Rhoads said.
DiDonato said that it might be prudent to vote on both proposals, and Business Administrator Frank Zuber commented.
“We don’t have anything on the record,” Zuber said.
Town solicitor Michael Malinsky explained further.
“Before we go into a first and second, let’s give it a number. What would this resolution number be?” Malinsky said.
Zuber replied that it would be classified as Resolution No. 124-2022. After discussion on the final language of the resolution, Malinsky continued.
“It would be in support of an application to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s no-cost stormwater consulting program to have them to do the feasibility study, and it would not require the town of Hammonton to implement the stormwater utility after they have this study done,” Malinsky said.
DiDonato addressed resident William Cappuccio, who had previously spoke to council about governmental transparency.
“You’re watching the sausage being made in public on TV,” DiDonato said.
DiDonato then acknowledged Assemblyman Michael Torrissi (R-8), who entered council chambers and approached the microphone.
“My phone lit up. I understand there’s a bill you want to send me? That I’m not doing my job as a Hammonton resident and a state assemblyman? This is what I was just told. There’s a bill; the state is not reacting, not doing their job, not cleaning up; we have this problem?” Torrissi said.
“I said send to state; Mr. Rodio made mention of the fact that the creek—” he began, then Rodio continued.
“The barrels. They’ve been there for 60 years or longer,” Rodio said.
DiDonato attempted to regain control of the room.
“Wait a minute; let’s everybody stay calm. Oh my God,” he said.
Rodio continued, pointing to Public Works Manager Robert Vettese.
“When we did Bellevue Avenue, he fought the state to try to get the stormwater taken care of or made larger. You know what they told us? ‘No, we can’t do it,’” Rodio said.
Rodio directly addressed Bachalis, who previously served on council.
“Dan was sitting here back then. You sat on council then, didn’t you, Dan? Did you sit on council then, when Fourth Street got done? Yeah, you don’t know now,” Rodio said.
Gribbin responded to Torrissi.
“Your phone likely lit up because of something I said in response to something Councilman Rodio said, talking about the creek—and we spent money for Scott and the men to do that cleanup back there. You acknowledge that that occurred?” Gribbin said.
Torrissi acknowledged the fact.
“Mr. Mayor, did I, or did I not, have the state come out there? I spoke with Sam, I spoke with Mr. Furgione, to do whatever we can to help clean up,” Torrissi said.
“No help ever came, Michael,” Rodio said.
Torrissi said that he could not speak for the actions of the state prior to his being sworn in to office.
“I have put in more hours than I could ever have possibly imagined to help this job and do what I can, and I want to make sure you guys—I’m here for the town of Hammonton, whatever we can do to fix this,” Torrissi said.
“I think what we have, now we have sausage being cooked here, and we think somebody’s making gravy and stirring the pot. Nothing was said that Assemblyman Torrissi and the state are not doing their job—as far as the last six or eight months,” DiDonato said.
“But that’s Hammonton for you. You should know better,” Rodio said.
Furgione said that state workers did help with some drainage in a ditch on the White Horse Pike west of Oak Road.
“They dug out that ditch. They packed it with riprap. We went in with the vac truck and vacced the inlets on Oak, and all that water—although it’s not Cedar Branch Stream—is moving where it’s supposed to move,” Furgione said.
Torrissi said he thought that represented the total of drainage work necessary.
“If there’s anything else, please let me know,” Torrissi said.
Furgione reiterated that help would be needed with Cedar Branch Stream, and Torrissi replied.
“You know, if it was up to me, I’d just go in there with a backhoe and dig it out,” Torrissi said.
DiDonato replied to Torrissi.
“You the man. You’re the man, the legend,” he said.
Gribbin inquired further of Torrissi.
“Are we still playing golf tomorrow?” he said.
“With you? We’ll see,” Torrissi said as he exited the chamber.
DiDonato then asked for a motion to approve the resolution to continue the study with no obligation to enact a stormwater utility. With no one offering, DiDonato made the motion, which Gribbin seconded.
DiDonato, Gribbin and Olivo voted in favor of the motion. Furgione, Rodio and Wuillermin voted against the motion. With Councilman Jonathan Oliva absent from the meeting, the motion was tied at 3-3.
“It doesn’t pass,” Malinsky said.
Wuillermin proposed an alternate motion.
“I don’t have the benefit of a prepared resolution, but I would propose—or I would make a motion—that, in light of the fact that Hammonton has been moved up into a Tier A stormwater management area from Tier B, and considering the fact that the state has certain money available to assist the town in completing the requirements necessary to fulfill the obligation of that designation, and whereas that comes at no cost to the town and what we can obtain from the information that has been provided to date, I would make a motion that the town make an application for the resiliency planning in order to implement the requirements of the Tier 1 community in order to get the required permits that are necessary that follow from that designation,” Wuillermin said.
Furgione seconded Wuillermin’s motion. DiDonato inquired further.
“Mr. Wuillermin, will you help with filling out that grant application?” he said.
“Why not? Sure,” Wuillermin said.
The motion carried unanimously.
During the second public portion of the meeting, Republican town council candidate Joshua Trepiccione addressed council.
“I was very vocal in my opposition of the ‘rain tax,’ and I said so for a reason. I understand it’s a stormwater utility, but if it’s coming out of your left pocket to your right pocket, it’s still coming out of your pocket, and, in that sense, it’s still a tax,” Trepiccione said.
Trepiccione said that he appreciated council’s actions on the topic.
“I’m glad we didn’t go for a stormwater utility. Looking through what some of those breakdowns looked like, that burden on taxpayers isn’t going to solve the problem. Quite frankly, a study to look at the benefits of the tax is not going to solve the problem,” Trepiccione said.
The next meeting of town council will be at 7 p.m. on September 26 at town hall.