When Gov. Phil Murphy withdrew $850 million in proposed spending increases as a step toward balancing the coronavirus-ravaged 2021 state budget, the third biggest line item eliminated was a planned $80 million to replace lead water pipes.

That reversal – it’s not accurate to call it a cut, as it hadn’t been approved yet – was among the topics broached Monday at the inaugural meeting of the Assembly Special Committee on Infrastructure and Natural Resources, the Legislature’s latest attempt to tackle New Jersey’s water needs.

“I see that $80 million may be removed from remediating lead in the budget, and I hope the committee takes that serious,” said Kareem Adeem, acting director of Newark’s water department. “Because if we’re serious about the children and we’re serious about removing lead, we need to make sure that there’s more money in there.”

“The costs will be there. We’re either going to pay now or we’re going to pay later,” said Peter Chen, policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “Those costs are only going to go up as time goes on. As the infrastructure degrades further, the costs of replacing them go up substantially.”

Assemblyman Rob Karibinchak, D-Middlesex, the committee chairman, said he agreed the funding shouldn’t be removed from the budget.

“This vision of not having that funding that was there initially I believe should be there because this is people’s health,” Karibinchak said.

That isn’t the only lead-related program getting hit. The spending listed to be de-appropriated in the current budget includes $10 million for lead-safe home renovations. And the plans zapped from next year’s spending plan also include $1.5 million for childhood lead outreach.

Besides state infrastructure funding and the challenge that COVID-19 is posing for both utility and customer budgets, another recurring topic at the nearly three-hour hearing was the looming issue of the workforce at water companies.

Cheryl Norton, president of New Jersey American Water, said water companies would like to work with the state on ways to get high-school students to consider potential careers in the industry.

“Utilities across the board are dealing with the same thing. We have an aging workforce, and it’s going to be kind of a silver tsunami, if you will,” Norton said. “Coming up for us in the next five to 10 years, as many as 50% of our employees are eligible for retirement. So we’re very concerned about that.”

Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, D-Burlington, suggested an even earlier start.

“Getting those kids when they’re in eighth grade interested in a career path that when they enter high school, they know the direction they want to go into, they know there is other avenues that create the ability for kids to find a job and to be in a trade,” Murphy said.

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Karibinchak said that perhaps the committee would develop recommendations to bring to the state Department of Education.

“This is not part of what they do as part of their curriculum. I think it should be there to give everyone the ability to see other advantages and careers besides what they’re hearing,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of students out there that have gone to college that are now struggling to find a job.”

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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