Our Treasurer, George, reported $1342.41 in hand. His report was approved by voice vote. Caswell Cook introduced his wife, Mary, who had come as his guest.
Shan introduced the speaker, beginning by thanking Rob Bullington for his help in reaching Mr. Walker and getting a date for this talk. She also informed the group that she and Rob had been working successfully to load monthly minutes onto the web at TrentonSymposium.org. Members were encouraged to invite people to join the group and steer them toward the valuable content recorded for each meeting.
Michael Walker indicated that he was chief of communications and community relations for the Water Works, and that the Water Works was now separate from the Department of Public Works. It had not thrived under that umbrella, and Walker was pleased with its greater independence.
He described the TWW as a 200-year old organization with a “sprawling program” of water supply. TWW has the capacity to deliver 60 million gallons of water, but currently demand is stable at about 20 million gallons. They serve 63,000 accounts (250,000 people) in Trenton, Hamilton, Lawrence, Ewing, and Hopewell through a network of 683 miles of pipe. They maintain a reservoir in Trenton at Pennington and Prospect Streets that holds 100 million gallons of prepared water, and maintain water towers throughout the area that regulate water pressure.
TWW operates in the black, depending for its revenue on customer payments and contributes 5% of its revenue to the Trenton city budget. New Jersey has the highest water standards in the nation, according to Walker, and TWW maintains its supply to those standards. TWW also connects with systems maintained by New Jersey American Water to assist each other in maintaining customer service in the event of a water emergency. They prefer to invest surplus revenue into the capital and maintenance needs of the system to keep it up to date and fully functional.
For the last several decades, starting under Trenton’s long-serving mayor, Doug Palmer, the Trenton Water Works suffered some neglect and mismanagement. Staffing was allowed to diminish, an original corps of ten engineers, for instance, collapsing to only three. Technology at the filtration plant fell behind without regular upgrades, and routine maintenance such as replacing, cleaning, and lining water mains, flushing hydrants and mains to clear out stagnant water, and maintenance at the elevated pressure tanks fell behind. Governor Christie, never a friend of the capital city, endorsed the neglect of the Water Works, seemingly in hopes of selling the operation to a private concern.
Dr. Hsieh, the former director, came to the Water Works toward the end of Mayor Eric Jackson’s tenure. He took the situation in hand and developed strategic approaches to bringing the TWW back to its former status as one of the great exemplary urban water systems in the country. He had to retire with much still undone due to serious health concerns, but Mayor Reed Gusciora has picked up the challenge by making TWW a priority for his administration.
TWW is now engaged in a multi-dimensional plan (left) to become both effective and resilient, able to serve its customers in normal times and adapt swiftly and successfully in times of crisis. The plan includes pro-active outreach and communication throughout the customer area, of which this talk, called H2OPEN, is one fruit. TWW held community forums in January throughout its service area, and is available to speak to any community group. It also offers tours of the filtration plant, by appointment, so that the public can see the works there.
TWW has also debuted an emergency line, TWW Connects, that can serve the whole system area (previously, emergency communication only reached Trenton customers). Water customers can sign up for information and alerts as well as choose phone, text, or email communication through the TWW website link here. https://www.trentonnj.org/453/TWW-Connects-Alerts
The plan also prioritizes controlling lead contamination in water at the tap. They have begun replacing some 36,700 lead-compromised service lines. (right) TWW expects to replace between 5800 and 7200 lines each year, completing the full replacement in 5-6 years. Currently, TWW is charging homeowners $1000/home to complete the replacement. They hope that Trenton City Council will approve a proposed rate increase, so that the Works can use its own revenue to make these replacements free to homeowners. TWW is also adding a phosphate compound to the water that coats the pipes to seal lead in place and prevent it leaching from joints or pipes into the water as it flows.
The Water Works is also staffing up, filling the 65 empty positions that accumulated since the Palmer years. Staffing is at about 95% now, so there is still some need for growth. TWW tries to hire staff from Trenton, as City Council insists they do, but they must also hire professionals with advanced licenses, and those don’t always exist in our city. With the re-staffing, the TWW is also looking to relocate its administrative offices to the Westside Plaza, now largely abandoned. They think they could combine their renovation for administration with the creation of a new public library branch in the Plaza, which would be a considerable amenity for the city.
Another priority is to retire the great old reservoir and store the finished water more safely in sealed tanks. Having all the service area’s prepared water in one place no longer meets Federal safety standards because that one collection point is vulnerable to attack. However, as came up in the question period, building enough tank space to hold 100 million gallons could create unsightly blight in the customer communities. One member of the Symposium expressed particular concern that these tanks would be concentrated in Trenton rather than spread equally through the service area. Michael Walker affirmed that TWW would try to make the tanks more beautiful, perhaps with murals, and would spread them around in part for safety.
These changes are slated to take about 6 years to accomplish, and the TWW is asking for a rate increase that will average $11/month for customers. It’s the first TWW rate increase in ten years, and they expect it will be followed by another rate increase in a few years. Michael Walker made the case that the increased revenue is needed to recover from years of neglect and reestablish TWW as the water system the city needs for the future. Also, the increase still leaves TWW customers paying about half what customers of NJ American water are paying. Meanwhile, TWW is establishing new levels of effectiveness, including no lead violations in 2019 and only one, mostly precautionary, “boil-water” advisory in September.
Walker admitted that the rate increase is a hard sell at City Council. He commended them for making local citizens their priority, and affirmed that TWW has to do a better job being ready to answer Council’s legitimate questions about earlier appropriations and about the costs and value of their long-term plans.
The meeting adjourned at 1:40pm. We will meet again on Monday, March 30.
Shan Holt, Secretary