Trenton Residents Fed up with Trenton Water Works

The Trenton Times published the following article on April 20, 2013. To read the full article, click here.

Trenton residents say they’re fed up with Trenton Water Works

By Erin Duffy/The Times of Trenton 
on April 20, 2013 at 7:00 AM, updated April 20, 2013 at 7:01 AM

TRENTON — For city resident Jeffrey Matthews, the last straw was his latest water bill. It said he owed $140 — the same amount as all the water bills he’s been sent during the last two years.

“Over the last eight quarters, I’ve had only one bill that wasn’t estimated,” he said. “I don’t see any reason for this. I really don’t.”

John Vanellis was one of hundreds of West Ward residents who didn’t receive a spring water bill after a printing glitch two weeks ago.

It’s not the first time that’s happened — last quarter he did not receive a bill and was later sent a shut-off notice for lack of payment.

When he went online to pay his bill last week, he also noticed he owed the same amount as last quarter.

“When I called the billing office, the woman I spoke to said it was an estimated bill and they’re very short on meter readers and that’s why it’s the same,” Vanellis said. “I was told they had three meter readers covering the entire city.”

Trenton Water Works customers like Matthews and Vanellis said they’re fed up with the late, missing or estimated bills coming out of the city-owned water utility.

“I’m tired of paying inflated, estimated bills,” Matthews said. “Last year when I got my only nonestimated bill, it was almost half of my estimated bills.”

City officials, who held a job fair yesterday to fill 74 open positions across the city, including 29 vacancies in Water Works, have said the new hires should solve some of the staffing problems in the water department.

“There’s been a lot of estimated reads,” city sewer utility superintendent Joseph McIntyre said at a Tuesday night council meeting in response to billing questions from Councilman Zachary Chester. “The water meters aren’t being read that quickly because of staffing issues that are in the process of being resolved.”

But staffing issues have persisted in the Water Works for years. Councilman George Muschal said when he became council president in 2010, 129 positions in the utility were vacant because of layoffs stemming back to former Mayor Douglas Palmer’s administration.

Muschal said the vacancies didn’t make sense. The water department generates millions in surplus and salaries for employees in divisions like billing or water meter reading should pay for themselves.

“This is a money-maker,” Muschal said. “This is our cash cow. We should be on this.”

Fiscal year 2013 budget documents and public records obtained this year showed 63 jobs, one-third of all budgeted positions in the water department, remained unfilled.

At yesterday’s job fair, the city was looking to fill four water meter reader/inspector positions, along with chemists, a laboratory technician, plant operators, mechanics and other vacant positions.

Matthews said he didn’t understand why the city couldn’t properly staff a department that raises its own revenue through its residential and commercial water ratepayers.

The water utility generally transfers up to 5 percent of its surplus to the city’s general operating budget. In recent years, that amount has translated to about $3 million.

“You get three months to read the meters,” Matthews said. “Especially when you’re getting back-to-back estimates, there’s no reason to have estimates for nine months in a row. If I’m paying $140 a quarter for estimated bills and one bill for $70, how do I know what’s right and what’s wrong? It’s frustrating.”

Mayor Tony Mack and business administrator Sam Hutchinson did not return calls and e-mails for comment on the staffing situation.

George Dougherty is a local attorney representing Edmund Johnson and Timothy London, two Water Works employees who allege they were fired in retaliation by Mack after providing evidence that led to the prosecution of his half-brother, former Water Works supervisor Stanley “Muscles” Davis, for performing side jobs with city employees and equipment.

Dougherty said the city has had responsible, competent employees in Water Works, but several, like Johnson and London, were laid off, replaced by less-skilled workers or transferred to other departments at the whim of the Mack administration.

“Tony Mack came in office and started laying off people in Trenton Water Works and he did it not because of real economy, he did it to get at people,” Dougherty said. “When you take a potential golden goose and you chop it up for the purpose of feeding your ego or for reasons of retaliation and basically cutting off revenue supplies either out of incompetence or blind rage, it’s bad.”

Other water meter readers, like Charles Hall III, the nephew of then-acting public works director Harold Hall and a government witness in the federal corruption case against Mack, were placed at Water Works only to be transferred to another department.

Charles Hall has since been terminated after a state Civil Service Commission ruled other Water Works employees should have been hired back before him, but he only worked as a meter reader for a month or so before being transferred to the understaffed recreation department, where he oversaw parks projects.

Dougherty said he found it hard to believe the city needed to turn to a job fair to fill water positions paying decent money.

“The notion that you would have to have a job fair to recruit water meter readers, it just clashes with the notion that we have high unemployment in Trenton,” he said. “There are people out there who would probably clamor for a job as a water meter reader, but those positions aren’t being filled.”

Contact Erin Duffy at (609) 989-5723 or eduffy@njtimes.com

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