Edison residents deliver petition opposing plan to privatize water system

Joyce Ship-Freeman is fearful of big hikes in water and sewer rates if Edison’s mayor and council lease the public utilities to a private company, Suez North America.

“They say in the event of a catastrophe that can go as high up as 10%. So therefore the people that are making it on a fixed income, like I am, cannot afford any higher rates,” she said.

The deal would call for Edison leasing control and management of its sewer system and part of its drinking water system to Suez, who would borrow $811 million from the Wall Street equity firm KKR for 11% interest for 40 years and Edison getting a concession or down payment of $105 million.

In April, a majority of the council rejected putting the issue on the ballot. For two days, NJTV News has sought interviews with the mayor and five council members. They have either not replied or the township’s spokesperson said they were unavailable. A spokesperson from the mayor’s office did direct NJTV News to a published report that quotes the mayor as saying the negotiated deal protects residents, provides money to upgrade in some cases crumbling infrastructure, stabilize rates, and allows the town to still own the systems.

But citizens launched a petition drive to demand Edison keep control and management of those systems. If not, they demand the issue go to a public vote in September. Organizers walked the petitions into the municipal building and delivered them to the city clerk.

The campaign collected nearly 5,000 signatures, way above the goal of 4,000. The organizers call the lease deal suspicious.

“This process all started a few months ago when we found out after three years of negotiating the mayor finally disclosed that they were going to try to privatize our sewer and water,” said petition organizer Keith Hahn.

Food & Water Watch helped citizens organize the petition drive, telling them the city could borrow money for way cheaper than KKR’s 11% interest rate and pointing to Suez’s management of water systems in other places.

“Rate hikes are going to rise. They have a bad history in places like Hoboken and Bayonne of water main breaks, and not doing enough, and not going fast enough in fighting lead in water,” said Junior Romero, Central New Jersey organizer for Food & Water Watch.

A Suez spokesperson says the company has helped Hoboken and Bayonne turn around their water systems and is using that knowledge to modernize Edison’s. The statement reads, “The benefit to having SUEZ in Edison is peace of mind and stability. With SUEZ, Edison will have a team ready to mobilize and correct any issues immediately. SUEZ will bring state-of-the-art equipment, resources, and leading industry experts to Edison that are not otherwise be available to the Township.”

Council members Ajay Patil and Joe Coyle voted to put the issue on the ballot.

“This is a loan for $850 million that you’ll never pay back. This is a financial nightmare that will soon be a financial plane crash,” said Coyle.

The clerk has 20 days to certify the petition signatures of mostly registered voters and then the council must act. That could include putting the issue on the ballot.