Seniors protest rising sewer rates

Mansfield Township senior citizens are taking their concerns over the cost of sewer rates to the State House in Trenton.

By: Eve Collins
   MANSFIELD — Some very determined seniors were expected to turn out for another demonstration to protest rising sewer rates in the area, this time at the State House in Trenton on Wednesday.
   In an attempt to attract officials’ attention, the seniors planned to deliver more than 600 signed letters of protest to the office of Gov. James E. McGreevey.
   "As a resident of the Four Seasons at Mapleton, a senior age-restricted community, I am asking your support of our action contesting the proposed Applied Wastewater Management rate increase being considered by the Board of Public Utilities," the letters read. All have space for a signature at the end.
   According to Myra Dickert, president of the Four Seasons at Mapleton Civic Association, the seniors are hoping the governor will help them present their case.
   "He says he is working for the middle class citizens of New Jersey, which most seniors are, so we’re hoping he can help make an impact," she said on Tuesday.
   Four Seasons and Homestead are age-restricted communities in Mansfield, and are two areas that will be hardest hit by the proposed sewer increases. Both have sewage treatment facilities.
   Applied Wastewater Management, the company that provides sewer service there, filed a petition to the Board of Public Utilities to raise its rates in March, officials have said.
   Homeowners were then told that they should expect steep rate increases, some as high as 34 percent or, in the case of Homestead, a 94 percent increase if approved by the state Board of Public Utilities.
   In Mapleton, for example, residents are looking at an increase in rates from $904 per year to $1,180 per year, officials have said.
   Of the 2,000 homeowners in Mansfield who will see an increase, almost 1,500 are seniors on fixed incomes.
   "It’s unconscionable," Mrs. Dickert said. "It’s a matter of survival."
   Officials at Applied Wastewater Management have said that expenses have gone up over the years, so the company has not been getting the rate of return it needs. Rates have not been raised since 1989.
   Applied Wastewater Management is a subsidiary of E’town Corp., the parent company of Elizabethtown Water Co., which owns the Mount Holly Water Co.
   There also are facilities in Chester, Jefferson, Mount Olive, Union, Upper Freehold and Washington townships.
   The petition will have to go before a judge, who will make recommendations on the proposed increase to the state Board of Public Utilities, officials have said. The board automatically assigns an attorney from the New Jersey Division of the Ratepayers Advocate to represent homeowners.
   Hearings are set to begin Monday at the Office of Administrative Law in the Quaker Bridge Plaza on Quakerbridge Road in Mercerville. Mrs. Dickert said homeowners will be there as well to support the cause.
   A settlement based on negotiations between the utility and ratepayers advocate is often reached in these situations, officials have said. The board would have to approve that settlement.
   Throughout their protests of the increase, the homeowners have said they simply want to be charged for their fair share. In Four Seasons, seniors have said the developer who built their homes decided to build an adult community—with smaller houses—but they are now being charged rates reserved for estate-size houses.
   "We are not looking for freebies," Mrs. Dickert said. "We just want to pay for what we use."