The Lake Hopatcong Commission on Monday somberly voted in favor of a resolution to give notice to its sole employee as it faces a funding shortfall at the end of 2012.
“I’ve done a lot of things on this commission and as mayor for 14 years, and this one probably upsets me as much as any of them,” commission chairman and Jefferson Township mayor Russ Felter said after reading several lines from a termination letter to be given to Donna Macalle-Holly, the commission’s administrator of more than a decade. “Donna has done nothing but a great job for this commission, for the lake, and for the state and the fact that we’re here because of political bickering at this time is, quite frankly, an embarrassment. Basically, the state should be ashamed of themselves to put us in this position.”
The commission went on to vote in favor of the resolution to deliver the letter—“under duress,” according to commissioner Betty Gantert; “with regret” from commissioners Dan McCarthy and Kerry Kirk Pflugh; and “reluctantly” from commissioner Richard Zoshack. All expressed sadness over losing Macalle-Holly and questioned what the commission’s role would be moving forward.
McCarthy drafted a letter to the governor and state legislature asking who was going to take responsibility for the tasks delegated to the Lake Hopatcong Commission, which was created by law to care for the lake, but has lost funding because of political gamesmanship in Trenton. “There has to be a clearing house for all things Lake Hopatcong,” McCarthy said. “If we aren’t, who is?”
A bill that would have provided funding to the commission—an amount that was slowly whittled down from about $700,000 to around $150,000 annually, to be taken out of boater registration fees—was tabled in the state legislature after making it out of committee. Its sponsor, Sen. Anthony R. Bucco, held the bill after it became clear that it would not pass the legislature and that Gov. Chris Christie vowed not to sign it if passed, pledging not to sign on to any new spending unless the Democrats would agree to a tax cut.
Felter said the state had been good to the lake in some ways, including its taking over the weed harvest operation this year, but that it ultimately failed by leaving the commission with obligations and no one to administer them. “What really irritates me is we’ve been used a success story… what a great job the commission has done and Donna has done, and everyone else,” Felter said. “But ‘thank you, we don’t have any money for you?’ The state should be embarrassed, including the legislature and including the governor. It’s time everybody stepped up.”
Felter said that he had had some discussions about a last-minute effort to secure funding, and was looking into ways that the four municipalities and two counties that surround the lake could provide in-kind services to keep the commission duties continuing after the new year. But the letter ultimately gave Macalle-Holly notice that her job would be terminated on December 21.
Several residents spoke during public comment, praising Macalle-Holly’s work with the commission and expressing regret over what had transpired.
Donna “didn’t receive on-the-job training, it’s been battlefield promotion,” Lake Hopatcong resident Tim Clancy said. “She’s been a great asset.”
Sam Hoagland of Hopatcong, who once served on the commission, said, “I’m really disturbed and dismayed we’re letting Donna go. Good luck, and I hope we get through it.”
Commissioner Anne-Seibert-Pravs said she had been sending letters to Trenton as a private resident, asking for funding for the commission, and implored the rest of the public to do the same. “If they hear from you, it could help,” she said.
Also on Monday, Kirk Pflugh announced that the latest meeting of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee, which revisits the water-level management plan annually, had determined not to change the drawdown plan going forward, meaning the lake would continue to be dropped 26 inches annually, and 60 inches every five years (the next instance being next year). She said that the state would administer a survey asking lakefront residents about property concerns when it comes to water level and ice, in an effort to gauge public opinion about the idea. The survey will be conducted online (though print copies will be available at Hopatcong State Park), and residents will be notified by mailer in the coming weeks.
Residents still spoke out with alarm over the idea that a drawdown plan could have changed, with Clancy pointing out the risks of heavy rainfall and ice taking out people’s fuel tanks in lower-lying areas around the lake. “Err on the side of inconvenience or err on the side of tragedy,” he said. “It’s blatantly obvious that there are so many risks.”
Mt. Arlington resident Bill Durand echoed that sentiment, saying it was “ridiculous” to risk the flooding of hundreds or thousands of homes when precautions are in place not to release too much water from the lake out of concern about flooding some homes along the Musconetcong River downstream.
Hoagland praised the group for conducting a survey of lake homeowners, and Joe Buonjourno of the Elba Point Homeowners Association asked that associations also be contacted via the survey, which Kirk Pflugh assured would be the case.
In other news:
• Cliff Beebe of Beebe Marina in Lake Hopatcong told the commission that the lake shouldn’t be lowered at all, and that the lake shouldn’t be managed by the state when the lakefront property owners are the true owners of the lake itself. “We have rights and we have businesses,” he said. “These businesses depend on the lake being kept full.”
• Macalle-Holly reported her update on the administration of grants: the septic project at Jefferson Day Care is under way, there has been some final work on the rain garden at Hopatcong State Park, a King Cove project is slated to begin this month, and Princeton Hydro will be adjusting a grant to include a floating wetland project and extending water-quality monitoring through 2013.
• Steve Ellis, the regional superintendent at Hopatcong State Park, said the state has funded the weed harvest for 2013, and ended the 2012 season in September, collecting more than 2,000 cubic yards of weeds over the course of the summer.
• Felter asked the commissioners to come to the November meeting prepared to discuss next year’s 5-foot drawdown and what plans the towns and counties could start making regarding cleaning the shoreline and disposing of debris. Macalle-Holly suggested the towns look to find a single day that could be a community cleanup for residents.
• Justin McCarthy of Hopatcong expressed concern over trails proposed for Liffy Island in Jefferson Township, suggesting that the trails “would disturb the natural charm of Liffy Island.” Felter, who, as mayor of Jefferson Township, is leading the effort for a trail system on Prospect Point and connecting trails on Liffy Island, said any trails on the island would be natural. “We certainly will take your comments under advisement,” Felter said. “We’ve been planning these trails with a lot of care.”
The next meetings of the Lake Hopatcong Commission will take place at 7 p.m. on Monday, November 19 and Monday, December 19 at the Mt. Arlington Borough Hall on Howard Boulevard.