Mayor Andre Sayegh is facing continued backlash for his administration’s botched sewer reforms that led to big fee increases for ratepayers.
A small contingent of residents protested the big increases in sewer fees last Tuesday at City Hall. Some ratepayers saw their bills increase by 100-percent. In at least one case, a ratepayer’s sewer bill jumped by 1,000-percent.
“We’ve heard you,” said Sayegh at the meeting, preemptively addressing the concerns raised by two-dozen people at City Hall. “We’re going to perform an analysis. We’re going to wait until the process plays out.”
Half-dozen people spoke at the meeting. Many blamed the mayor for his failure to rectify the problem after it came to light in late October.
“We need to do a full and thorough audit. There are so many discrepancies,” said former councilman Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman, who led the protest against the sewer fee increases. He observed 200-300-percent increases in sewer bills. “This is a problem for every single homeowner in Paterson.”
Akhtaruzzaman said a cap has to be placed on residential increases.
Councilman Flavio Rivera called for an audit of the sewer debacle in early November. Some council members expressed frustration at the slow response from the Sayegh administration.
“We’ve been talking about this issue for last two months. People have been complaining. Nothing has been done. Nothing has been done,” said Shahin Khalique, 2nd Ward councilman. He said Sayegh’s administration is ignoring the City Council.
“We know there is something wrong with the billing process. We need answers and we need them yesterday,” said council president Maritza Davila.
Sayegh had said he would host a town hall meeting which has yet to materialize.
The protesters, who were mostly from the 2nd Ward, put Khalique in an uncomfortable position. He is also being attacked by Akhtaruzzaman via a flyer.
Khalique described a flyer that singled him out as someone who voted in favor of the billing changes that led to big spikes as “propaganda.” The flyer highlighted the vote that was taken to change the billing mechanism.
“It makes it seem like I’m the one that raised the sewer fees,” said Khalique. He said he voted against the supplemental sewer bill measure.
Three measures were approved to reform the sewer. Khalique voted in favor of two. He voted against one.
The supplemental billing measure has nothing to do with the big increases ratepayers are seeing. The increases are due to changes in the billing method. Under the reformed billing system, the city is using a flat meter size charge and a usage fee based on water usage.
Akhtaruzzaman is blaming the council for approving the three measures.
Khalique appeared to validate Akhtaruzzaman’s argument by suddenly introducing a motion on the floor to rescind the measure that changed the billing method.
Law director Farrah Irving told the council a new ordinance has to be crafted for the council to rescind the previously approved measure. She also pointed out the city received $2 million for undertaking the reforms from the state government.
Irving said council members need to look at the “consequences” and “liability” that could result from undoing the sewer reforms.
“This is not a game,” said William McKoy, 3rd Ward councilman, to his colleagues. “This is not the way you conduct business. We ought to be deliberate about what we’re doing.”
McKoy said council members wanting to rescind the measure should draft an ordinance via the law director and bring it to the floor for a vote.
“This is chaos and confusion,” said McKoy.
The council did not move forward with Khalique’s motion.
Council members are under heavy pressure from their constituents to resolve the sewer problem. Six of them will begin campaigning for their re-election this month. Some are being attacked by their would-be opponents in next year’s election.
Some council members accused the Sayegh administration of misleading them through presentations. Council members said the blame is squarely on the mayor for failing to properly implement the sewer reforms.