TRENTON — State lawmakers plan to take up Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposal to borrow $500 million for lead remediation efforts after the election – but that doesn’t mean clear sailing for either the plan or the referendum that would follow in 2020.

Senate President Steve Sweeney said $500 million in bonds is “not enough,” given the extent of the problem statewide is believed to approach or exceed $2 billion, including public and private systems. An accurate estimate will depend on a full inventory of lead service lines.

“We have many places throughout this state that people aren’t really aware of that they have problems with lead in their water,” said Sweeney, D-Gloucester.

“And the bigger problem is what do you tell the towns that actually did the right thing, fixed their water system, and now I’m going to be taxed or charged for another water system,” Sweeney said. “I think we need to think it out a little bit further with the bond.”

In unveiling his lead remediation proposal earlier this month, Murphy said the proceeds from the borrowing would help pay for improvements to public water systems. Private water systems would be allowed to increase their rates to pay for upgrades to their infrastructure.

Sweeney said the administration also points to federal funding sources to help cover the costs. He said the state has one chance to go to voters for borrowing so needs to be sure it’s enough.

“The worst part is if we bond $500 million and then three years from now, the money’s gone and we’re halfway through it, people are going to think: ‘What did you do with the money? You misappropriated it. We gave you what you asked for,’” Sweeney said. “If you’re going to go to the public, you’ve got to be very upfront of what the real problem is and how much it costs.”

State Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, said the water infrastructure issues in the state itemized by a legislative task force was “a bigger number than $500 million” and agreed the amount sought by the Murphy administration isn’t enough.

But Smith – who has long advocated for a water user fee of 40 cents per 1,000 gallons, which would yield $150 million a year – said he worries a referendum of any size wouldn’t pass. He said he would vote to put it on the ballot because the work is needed but that “there’s a better way to do it.”

“I also am concerned that a bond issue wouldn’t pass because the way it’s going to be framed by the opponents is that it’s the urbans versus the suburbans, why should I pay for that problem?” Smith said.

“And then the other way that it gets framed that will hurt the passage will be if the thematic is out there that if you have a private water company – you know, New Jersey American Water, as an example – that you get no benefit. That the private water companies are going to do infrastructure, and then you’re going to pay for it in your rights,” Smith said. “So it’s like you’re paying twice.”

“Those issues have to be overcome, and until they are I think you’re going to have an issue with the public supporting the infrastructure,” he said. “That being said, I’ll vote for the bill in a heartbeat because this is a problem we’ve got to care of.”

In other actions related to lead contamination, state Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, on Thursday proposed a bill (S4163) that would require financial institutions that foreclose on a property to remove water service lines that contain lead.

Also Thursday, state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, proposed legislation that would require public water systems to develop lead service line inventories and replace lead service lines (S4177) and require owners of residential rental property to conduct lead hazard inspections (S4178/A3624).


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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com