Thursday, February 08, 2018

Pessimistically Optimistic

Yesterday, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection announced they had issued an Administrative Consent Order regarding the Trenton Water Works. The ACO outlines definitive steps and deadlines for improvements, operations, and staffing of the water utility. Failure to meet the deadlines will leave the city open to fines.

The troubles at TWW have been well documented by Kevin Moriarty and the local press. In the past week the governing bodies of both Trenton and Hamilton have had special presentations/discussions about the ongoing issues. Yet there still seems to be a lot of misinformation out there. (Some of which is due to the city of Trenton's inability and/or unwillingness to communicate clearly with the TWW customer base as well as public officials in the towns served by the utility).

We heard more than one public official say that would like transparency with regards to the budget of the Trenton Water Works. Well, the water budget is available on line as part of the City of Trenton budget. Unfortunately, some of the numbers are not readable because, for space reasons the cells are not large enough to contain the entire sum. However, the key information is there, especially the amount of the anticipated and realized surpluses each year.

With a realized surplus of $12 million for fiscal year 2017, it is obvious that there is money available for staffing, maintenance and improvements.

There is confusion about the city's residency requirement for employees. Let's be real clear right and here and now, the residency ordinance was amended in October of 2014 to allow a "waiver for exceptional persons". 
Chapter 2. AdministrationArticle XVI. Officers and Employees ...
§ 2-95. Residence requirements; exception; waiver. D. Waiver for exceptional persons. Whenever the hiring authority of the City of Trenton shall determine that there are certain specific positions and employments requiring special talents or skills which are necessary for the operations of the City of Trenton and which are not likely to be found among the residents of the City, such positions or employments so determined shall be filled without reference to residency. This provision shall be used for positions or employments for (1) officers that are subject to the advice and consent of the City Council and (2) positions requiring persons with scientific or technical licenses or certifications required by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, New Jersey Division of Community Affairs or any other state governing agency.
[Amended 10-2-2014 by Ord. No. 14-33]
It is obvious that the intent of the amendment was to allow the city to hire form outside of the city the licensed individuals necessary for the proper operation of the TWW. And, it was done in the first few months of the failed Jackson administration.

If the residency waiver was in effect, why have so many technical positions been left unfilled?

One answer, based upon the testimony heard at last week's Trenton city council meeting, was that the city was bad about responding to/following up with applicants. One individual stated she never heard back from the city; not even a "thank you, no" letter. Nothing!

The administration offered the excuse that the salaries being offered "were not competitive". Well, if you are operating the utility with a surplus but your salaries are not competitive, maybe you should increase those salaries. Is it that hard?

A third issue is that, until recently, the advertising of the vacancies seemed to be sparse and sporadic at best. We heard that open positions were not currently posted on the city website and a suggestion to hang a "Now Hiring" banner on the filtration plant ignored. You aren't going to get many applicants if they don't know there are openings.

Taken altogether, it appears less that the city was unable to hire people and more like it didn't put any real effort into hiring people.

The ACO has set benchmarks for hiring critical personnel and recent contracts issued to Wade Trim for contract employees to fill some of the vacancies are a start. With increased staffing of professionals, we would expect to see a return to normal, proper operations.

Timely notification of customers about events potentially affecting have been another complaint heard over and over. The DEP has recognized that TWW's Emergency Action Plan is deficient and is demanding it be updated to eliminate those deficiencies. In a February 7 article in the Trentonian, Hamilton mayor, Kelly Yaede, complained that TWW still has up to 24 hours to notify customers.
“The neighboring municipalities should receive the notification within 60 minutes,” the Hamilton mayor said. “When you’re dealing a public health crisis, particularly dealing with quality drinking water, notification is key. In this day and age of social media, getting information out quickly, timliness is imperative.”
As we pointed out in a previous entry, that is the maximum time that Federal regulations for a Tier 1 (Immediate Notice) event to be communicated to the customers. We have to assume that the new policies and procedures to be adopted by TWW aren't going to tell employees to wait the full day before notification. We'd expect something along the lines of "should be notified as soon as possible but not more than 24 hours after an event occurred."

While many are still dubious about the ability of Trenton to professionally manage the utility, the ACO lays out a pretty straightforward road map of what needs to be done and by one. To help keep things on course, TWW must file monthly progress reports with DEP until all items have been completed. The reports are due to be submitted on the last day of each month, unless said date falls on a weekend. In that case, the reports are due on the first business day of the new month. There are fines for each day the reports are late. A prior ACO required "quarterly progress reports" be we are not sure if any were filed.

To help restore confidence in TWW, we believe it would be best if the city made those reports public at the time of submission to DEP. In this way, the customers and all of the public officials can track progress along with the DEP. If things get off track, public pressure can be brought to bear and the situation corrected sooner rather than later.

We feel this new ACO is both a positive first step and a last chance warning for TWW, Trenton's governing body and mayor now and going forward.

We're pessimistically optimistic

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