“No one puts new wine into old wineskins: otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins: but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins” (Mark 2:22).
The conditions we face are serious in more areas than a distressed water and sewer system. We face them in crime, unemployment, housing, and financial resources. Everyone that I have ever spoken with living in the City, wants change. However, change requires doing things a different way. Part of that change is finding the best possible way to eliminate the debts that are keeping the City in poverty, while still keeping residents safe, and critical services affordable.
The sale to American Water will not only provide a way to pay off $11 million dollars in debt, but it will also put the $1 million dollars that we are expending in debt services, piecemeal repairs, and operating expenses back into the city budget. It will allow the operation of the water and sewer service to be handled by a company that specializes in them and can provide a safe and well-maintained system with the lowest amount of rate increase possible to ratepayers. It can also provide the city with funds to put back into the community for other needs.
American Water is a utility that is monitored by the Board of Public Utilities (BPU), just as the electric and gas companies are. The company has been the provider for Penns Grove, Carney’s Point and over a hundred other municipalities in New Jersey without incident. As a public utility, they cannot raise rates without the permission of the BPU, who monitors their business. If they failed to do their job well, not only would they have long since been bankrupt as a company, but the BPU would have shut them down. However, unlike AC Electric and SJ Gas, American Water is ratable; meaning they pay taxes to the municipality they serve, offsetting the cost of municipal water use.
The City, did not make the recommendation to sell lightly. It was done on the advice of multiple experts who provided best and worst-case scenarios with real numbers, not rhetoric based in fear and anger instead of fact. In order to maintain the system as a City utility, rates would require a 68% increase to sustain the system, over double what ratepayers now pay. The City would also run the risk of being unable to repair the systems fast enough to prevent further damage as was seen in Detroit and Jackson, both of which were city owned utilities.
The City of Salem is now at a crossroads. This vote is not just about water and sewers, but the path of the City. Are we going to continue to be the second most distressed municipality in the state because we are afraid to change? Are we going to allow fear, promoted by people with no plan, some of whom do not even live in the City, to keep us drowning in debt because it reinforces their image of Salem as a city where nothing ever changes? At what point do we start doing things a different way?
Mark 2:22 tells us that you cannot get new results with the same behaviors. The verse reminds us that a new mindset is needed for change. This vote is about more than water. It is about whether or not the City will move forward, or if it will remain the same. As such, it is the most important vote you will ever cast in your lifetime. I cannot tell you what to do, only that I do not believe the City can every reach its potential by staying the same. I am voting for the sale of the water and sewer. I am voting for change.