Member of the City Council on Tuesday night began the process to undo mayor Andre Sayegh’s botched sewer reforms that led to massive fee hikes for property owners.
Sayegh’s reforms raised fees on property owners by 100 to 1,000 percent. His staff also failed to correctly bill industrial, nonprofit, and government users for sewer fees. He was given more than a year to address the problem. Council members said the mayor and his team failed to address the problems forcing them to pass an ordinance to rescind the reform package.
“Residents bills were going through the roof,” said Lilisa Mimms, vice president of the City Council.
Mimms said residents, many of whom were unfairly billed, were given the runaround by the Sayegh team when they tried to challenge the bills.
Council president Flavio Rivera showed a sample of properties on Van Houten Street, mostly one and two family homes, that saw sewer fees increase by double digits.
“Most of the burden was passed to homeowners,” said Rivera.
Business administrator Kathleen Long, who pitched the sewer reforms while serving as Sayegh’s chief of staff, told the council during her various presentations two years ago that nonprofit organizations and industrial users would contribute much more under the reforms.
“The big entities were not being billed correctly,” said Rivera. He discovered that large industrial users were not billed correctly by the Sayegh administration soon after complaints began to pour in from residents. “That was corrected.”
But problems persist with Sayegh’s sewer changes. His administration failed to bill almost half of the school district buildings in Paterson. Officials said at one point a top ranking official in his administration falsely told council members schools do not pay sewer bills.
All entities must pay sewer expenses, including tax-exempt organizations and government entities.
Rivera called for an audit of the sewer in November 2019. Council members said Sayegh ignored their calls and neglected to address the numerous problems that resulted from his botched implementation of the sewer reforms.
“I’m tired of the baloney,” said councilman Luis Velez. “It’s a shame that at the last hour, when you’re against the wall, you’re saying, ‘We’re going to fix it.’”
Velez is a close ally of the mayor. But he has grown tired of phone calls from residents complaining about their sewer bills, he said.
Sayegh made a series of desperate attempts to win over council members to avoid the embarrassment of getting one of his signature initiatives rolled back, according to sources. His efforts largely failed. Just two of his allies on the council defended him and his sewer reforms on Tuesday night.
“I don’t feel comfortable repealing something without a replacement,” said councilman Al Abdelaziz, a staunch ally of the mayor.
Councilwoman Ruby Cotton, another Sayegh ally, said the state might ask the city to return $2 million if the reforms are undone.
Cotton and Abdelaziz struggled to hold the line for Sayegh.
“I was elected to serve the residents, not to serve the mayor or his administration,” said Rivera.
Acting finance director Javier Silva said repealing the measures will create a $7.5 million hole in the budget. Rivera quickly pointed our Silva’s figures were inflated. Silva assumed the city would have to return $2 million the state provided in transitional aid for creating the sewer utility. But the state has yet to say whether Paterson will have to repay the $2 million.
Silva said the hole being created will have to be filled by increasing property taxes.
“I don’t want to hear this fear tactic,” added Mimms.
Rivera said he would like the administration to come up with a new plan for the sewer that does not include billing based on water usage.
Residents who water their lawn and garden during the summer were hit hard by Sayegh’s sewer reforms.
Long said using water usage to bill homeowners is fair and equitable. She had made the same argument while pitching the sewer reforms two years ago. Some council members have publicly said she mislead them with her presentations.
Council members largely dismissed Long’s argument on Tuesday night.
“The fact that the BA is still trying to justify these charges is mind boggling to me,” added councilman Michael Jackson.
Sayegh made the same argument as Long when reached for comments on Tuesday night.
“Our objective has always been to establish equity for rate payers and it still is. An analysis is needed to measure the effectiveness of the action that was previously supported by the City Council. Ultimately, it is a matter of fighting for fairness,” said Sayegh.
Council members have said Sayegh’s reforms were neither equitable nor fair because his team failed to ensure all sewer users were paying into the system.
Jackson said the Sayegh administration is “deaf to the concerns of residents.” He also said there’s a high “level of incompetence” in the Sayegh administration.
Councilman Shahin Khalique also criticized Sayegh. He said Sayegh had promised to hold town hall meetings to address concerns raised by residents.
Sayegh never held any town halls on the sewer issue.
Council members granted preliminary approval to repeal the sewer reforms in an 8-1 vote. Council members Ruby Cotton, Maritza Davila, Alex Mendez, Mimms, Rivera, Khalique, Velez, and Jackson voted in favor while Abdelaziz voted against.
Sayegh’s team also tried to hold off on returning to the old billing system by having the repeal measure go into effect in January 2022. Council members viewed this move as underhanded and deceptive.
“The residents cannot go another year absorbing the situation we have,” said Rivera.
Council members will take a final vote on repealing the reforms on February 23 following a public hearing.
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