Before the floor was open to any of the 50 or so residents who crowded into Monday’s Lake Hopatcong Commission meeting, chairman Arthur Ondish made an announcement.
“If we do not move forward in a positive direction soon, I am not sure I will choose to dedicate the time and energy to being the chairman of this commission,” he said. “My time and energy has value, and for me to be sinking it into an organization that doesn’t want to go forward but chooses to keep going in circles is foolish…I am getting tired of being sandbagged by people who just don’t understand that change is inevitable in order to survive.”
Ondish’s comments came after he presented his plan to split efforts between a “Plan A” funding solution, which would involve seeking money from the state and other sources, and a “Plan B,” which would involve charging fees to those who use the lake. “If money comes in from the state or other sources, then that money would offset the money we would need to generate with plan B,” he said. “In the meantime, there is a lake in need of maintenance that cannot afford to wait.”
Originally, Ondish said he planned to seek a vote from the commission during Monday’s meeting on a resolution that would ask state legislators to begin crafting permissive legislation to allow the commission to gain funding through a user fee. But he said concerns about the vote, as well as the possibility of a change in leadership in Trenton, led him to back off on that request. Still, he argued that the sooner the commission moved forward on such legislation, the more likely it would be that the state would fund weed-harvester maintenance in the current off-season.
Residents spoke out both before and against such a vote, and the overall idea of the legislation. “You guys better get it together,” said Tim Clancy of Lake Hopatcong, who argued that a lack of funding lake maintenance would result in lower home values around the lake. “I’m seeing all my life’s work be destroyed by your inaction. We’re talking about a nominal fee. We’ve got to take charge of this…don’t worry about my $50 or my $100. Worry about my home, because it’s going to be worth nothing when you guys are done.”
Sam Hoagland of Hopatcong echoed that idea, saying he has a huge investment on Lake Hopatcong. “I think time is of the essence,” he said, “and I think a vote should be taken tonight.”
But Ron Sorensen of Lake Hopatcong Marine warned the commission that they should think about the long-term implications of such legislations, which he said would inevitably lead to user fees that never went away. “My son is still going to be paying this in 50 years,” he said. “This thing is not going to go away. Just because the economy is in rough shape now, keep in mind that the decision you make will change things forever.”
Ray Fernandez, president of the Lake Hopatcong Alliance and owner of Bridge Marina, spoke about the missed funding opportunities that should be fully explored before any steps are taken toward user fees. “Those fees are taxes on the citizens,” he said. “The consensus of the Lake Hopatcong Alliance is that user fees should not be considered until all other funding opportunities have been proven exhausted…. We looked at a lot of these programs, and there are opportunities out there.”
Specifically, Fernandez and others brought up I Boat NJ, a state program that funds the promotion, improvement, and enhancement of the marine industry in New Jersey through grants paid for by the 2003 vessel registration fee increase. Fernandez said that discussions with state senators Steven Oroho and Anthony Bucco led him to believe that state funding was still a strong possibility. “All of those funding opportunities have not yet been exhausted,” he said.
Ondish argued that “Plan A” will always be in place, which would seek such funding, and said that the commission was currently looking into I Boat NJ grant opportunities. But, he said, the fruitless efforts to be fully funded through such channels are no longer something to count on. “Without funding, no organization can operate, and without operating budget for the LHC, there will be no maintenance of Lake Hopatcong,” he said. The permissive legislation, he said, would just be a “baby step” in the direction of user fees.
Commissioner Kerry Kirk Pflugh, who represents the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, said she believed the lake could only be fully funded through a combination of both funding sources. “Neither Plan A nor Plan B alone can address the funding issue,” she said. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars…and lump sums are periodic in nature.”
Hopatcong mayor Sylvia Petillo urged the commission to do whatever possible to secure funding for the maintenance of the harvesters this winter. “We really can’t keep putting a band aid on the harvesters,” she said. “When this election is over, we’ll still need the money, and we don’t have months to wait.”
Sen. Oroho, who attended the meeting, spoke to the commission and those in attendance, and encouraged the commissioners to wait until November’s meeting—after the gubernatorial election—to vote, which is ultimately what the commission decided to do. And Ondish asked that any commissioners or members of the public present their ideas by then. “For those of you who are not in agreement with my plan, let me see your better, realistic plan,” he said. “Let’s work together to find an answer.”
One major component of the commission’s long-term plan was first brought to the table at Monday’s meeting: the long-awaited business plan, prepared by a committee headed by commissioner and Jefferson mayor Russell Felter.
Specifically, the plan presents three alternate employment strategies: one with two full-time employees, one with three, and one with five. Each of the alternatives also plans for a seasonal workforce, which means each features a total of ten employees. The plans would cost $446,000, $542,000, or $650,000, respectively. The objective would be to have staff on hand to run the harvesters during the summer and complete maintenance efforts, shared services with the communities, and other lake-related job responsibilities during the fall, winter, and spring months—much in the way it had been in the past. (Read the full story about the weed harvesting operation here.)
“I think there’s a good argument that the state of New Jersey should be paying,” commissioner Richard Zoschak said during the business plan review, pointing out the millions of dollars that the lake generates in revenue. “Whatever plan we go to, we should present our budget to the state, and we should follow through and present it every year.”
The business plan is going to be posted on the commission’s website, lakehopatcong.org, and available for review in the commission office. The commissioners plan to revisit it at the November meeting and open the floor to public comment about the proposals then.
In other news, two separate donations to the Lake Hopatcong Commission were presented during Monday’s meeting. Justin McCarthy, son of commissioner Daniel McCarthy, presented about $40 that he had collected from fellow students at the Durban Avenue Elementary School in Hopatcong, and George and Tyler Cicero of the Lake Hoaptcong Times donated $185, raised by the Lake Hopatcong Motor Sports Club. “These guys,” Ondish said, “are really fighting for the lake.”
To read the Star-Ledger story on the meeting, click here.