Mayor Andre Sayegh’s bungled sewer reforms that led to massive fee increases for property owners and sparked a protest were repealed on Tuesday night.
Members of the City Council voted 7-2 to undo the sewer changes.
“We are here out of frustration,” said council president Flavio Rivera before the vote. Council members implored the mayor and his administration to address the complaints and correct the bills for more than a year.
Sayegh’s administration failed to correctly bill industrial properties, school buildings, and other government buildings. Residents, who complained about receiving incorrect bills based on water usage, were given the runaround.
“You had a year and half. What happens to those residents whose bills went up 300, 400 percent? They don’t have more time. They are an inch away from losing their homes,” said councilwoman Lilisa Mimms.
“There was no evidence of making any change,” added councilman Michael Jackson.
Sayegh inflicted further pain on residents by over-billing sewer users to produce a surplus. The reforms created a sewer utility that was supposed to collect just enough fees to make the system self-liquidating not to build surpluses. He touted the surplus in his state of the city speech last month.
Business administrator Kathleen Long told the council repealing the measure could lead to the state taking back $2 million in transitional aid that was given as an incentive to enact the sewer reforms. She also said the move could jeopardized state aid.
Paterson received almost $25 million in state aid last year.
State officials warned the mayor and council members the city could lose $2 million and risk transitional aid. But that letter came after Sayegh wrote to the state seeking assistance to preserve his sewer reforms.
“It’s what I consider a threatening letter,” said councilwoman Maritza Davila. She confronted Long about the mayor’s letter to the state.
“We felt it was our responsibility to also alert them,” answered Long.
Davila said the letter was intended to “shake us up” and “put us in the corner.” But the letter did not persuade the council.
“I’m sure the state will do the right thing. All I’m asking the state is to have faith in the council,” said Rivera.
Cutting aid to a Democrat-run city is unlikely to help governor Phil Murphy’s re-election in November, suggested Davila.
Sayegh’s ally councilman Al Abdelaziz tried to delay undoing the sewer reforms by suggesting an amendment to the ordinance. An amendment would have delayed undoing the sewer reform by weeks.
Abdelaziz was joined by another Sayegh ally councilwoman Ruby Cotton. Their effort failed.
Sayegh tried to pull a “Houdini trick” using his council allies, said councilman Michael Jackson.
“All this will do is take it off the agenda,” said Rivera of the amendment.
Council members told the business administrator to craft a new plan to recreate the sewer utility without water usage-based billing. Council members said calculating sewer bills using water usage led to the problems with the sewer reforms.
“The ball is in your court,” said councilman Luis Velez. “Get to work.”
Council members Rivera, Mimms, Shahin Khalique, Davila, Jackson, Velez, and Alex Mendez voted in favor while Abdelaziz and Cotton voted against.
Even after the ordinance passed, Sayegh’s business administration continued to defend the botched reforms. As Sayegh’s chief of staff Long gave several presentations on the sewer reforms.
Council members said those presentations were misleading and deceptive. Rivera said when he told Long school buildings were not being billed for sewer, she told him schools do not pay sewer. All entities must pay sewer fees, including tax-exempt properties.
“I think we’re doing the right thing for the taxpayers of Paterson,” said Velez. “We have heard the cries of the community.”
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