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User Fees Shelved, Future of LHC Questioned

Residents came out in full force on Tuesday to challenge a proposal for legislation that would have allowed the Lake Hopatcong Commission to introduce user fees for the lake. As it turned out, the plan was scuttled before the 7 p.m. meeting even began.

“I spent a lot of time on the phone today with [members of the Office of Legislative Services], and it is unconstitutional for any money collected for a state agency to be kept locally, it has to go to the state treasury,” chairman and Mt. Arlington mayor Art Ondish said. “That blows my plan right out of the water. And therefore, I can’t support this legislation.”lhc_nov_-_commission.jpg

Ondish had been a proponent of such fees to fund the Lake Hopatcong Commission, but said he would only support them if there could be guarantees that the money could be collected and kept locally, rather than sent to Trenton. The only way to do that, it turns out, is through a constitutional amendment, not a piece of legislation like the one that had been discussed for months and was expected to be put up for a commission vote on Tuesday.

But, although his words brought comfort and relief to many of the dozens who packed the Mt. Arlington Borough Hall, Ondish issued a warning about the future. “Everyone wants to critique everything, but they’re all words. I’m tired of the words, I want some action,” he said. “As of now, we’re done, we’re not operating next year. So be prepared for the lake to be in really [bad] shape.”

Although Governor-elect Chris Christie has closer ties to the Lake Hopatcong community than the current governor, Ondish said, he has a lot on his plate, and Hopatcong may not be a priority. “The state is in big, big trouble,” he said.

Several residents spoke up about opportunities for the lake to receive funding through different avenues—ideas that were likely brought to the table, in part, to persuade commissioners against user fees, but on Tuesday were recast as possibly the commission’s only chance to fund its operations, including weed harvesting and removal, storm water management, and water-quality testing.

Yanique Thorman, treasurer of the Lake Hopatcong Alliance, spoke to the commission about her conversations with those who run I Boat NJ, a state program that funds the promotion, improvement, and enhancement of the state’s marine industry through grants that are paid for by the boat registration fee increase in 2003. Since its inception, Thorman pointed out, the program has dispensed $14 million—but not a single dollar to any lakes, including Lake Hopatcong, or to Morris or Sussex counties. “I’m here tonight to tell you that that will change,” Thorman said.

Specifically, the alliance was given the go-ahead to seek grants for a Lake Hopatcong weed study, an economic impact study on behalf of the lake, a weed-control project, and a lake festival. “These projects will give us valuable information,” she said. “And this is proof that all avenues have not been explored.”

In the weeks since the last commission meeting, administrator Donna Macalle-Holly had also looked into I Boat NJ grants, and said the officials there encouraged the commission and alliance to work together to try to secure grants for the lake—a proposition that the alliance will vote on at its next meeting.

Commissioners praised the efforts made by the Lake Hopatcong Alliance, and Ondish suggested that the alliance might have a better shot at getting the funding the lake needs because it can work as an advocacy organization. The commission, on the other hand, is bound by certain rules as a state agency.

Many residents returned the praise to the commission for not moving forward with user fees. “I just want to thank you for not supporting a bad plan,” Steve Gebeloff of Hopatcong said.

“I’m very glad to hear you’re stopping the boat fee legislation,” said Ray Fernandez, president of the Lake Hopatcong Alliance and owner of Bridge Marina. “I’m very happy to hear that." But Fernandez took issue with comments that Ondish made about needing others to come up with ideas and explore them. "It sounds like you’re not supporting [getting funding in] other directions.”

Fernandez cited a letter from Melissa Danko of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey, in which she offered her support and said she “would be happy to meet with [the commission] to discuss other [non-user fee] solutions and opportunities for the lake.”

Ron Sorensen of Lake Hopatcong Marine offered a similar dose of mixed feelings. “Thanks for realizing that sending money to Trenton was a dealbreaker,” he said after the announcement, “and I’m glad to see you’re not hellbent on that idea. However, you’re saying no one’s coming up with ideas, but look at what [Thornton] did with I Boat NJ. There are promising things to come out of that… We [the Lake Hopatcong Alliance] are working on it, and for a group with such little time, I think we’re moving forward really well. But we would appreciate some support from you guys, and it’s frustrating, because we need you to be involved for this thing to move forward.”

Ondish said he did not mean to unclear or unappreciative, and that he was pleased with the work the alliance was doing.  "There are so many ideas out there, and we just need people to volunteer to vet them," he said. "I think this is a great start."

Lake Hopatcong resident John Kurzman suggested that the commission revisit some of the ideas they had previously brought to the table in Trenton, all of which had been dismissed as "nonstarters."  "Now that we have a new governor, go back with your list," Kurzman said. "Remember, the person holding up the ‘stop/don’t go’ sign was just voted out of office."

Earlier in the meeting, Sorensen expressed frustration with another component of lake management—the annual drawdown, which began on Nov. 1. Instead of dropping three-quarters of an inch per day, as was supposed to happen, the lake was dropping twice that much. “Marinas make plans, we pull boats out at a certain pace, and we schedule against that,” he said. So he contacted Larry Baier, the commission’s former representative from the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, who resolved the problem. “Why are we falling asleep at the wheel? And why do we have to be the cop telling them how to do their job?”

lhc_nov_-_felter.jpgMacalle-Holly said that the drawdown, which is controlled by the state, not the commission, was being implemented through an antiquated system and by new staffers this year, who were learning on the job. “But it’s not sending someone to the moon,” Sorensen said. “I personally think it’s a lack of priority.”

For that reason, Sorensen said, he hoped the water management plan would be revisited soon. A committee to do just that has been assembled, and Ondish said discussions should begin shortly.

Commissioner Daniel McCarthy of Hopatcong said that situation brought to mind two thoughts. One, what would happen if there was no Larry Baier at the state level who understood the lake and advocated on its behalf in Trenton? And two, “people come, and people go, but it’s not the plan that’s the failure, it’s that people need to follow it. That knowledge needs to be passed along.”

With regard to the Lake Hopatcong Commission Business Plan, which was first presented at the October meeting and was up for discussion on Tuesday, commissioners discussed which approach to the long-term funding—specifically with regard to weed harvesting—would be best to take. “We need to create a budget,” said commissioner and Jefferson mayor Russell Felter. “Do we go back to the full operation? My opinion is, we’re not in a position to do that.”

Felter said the costs of health benefits and pensions make it too expensive to hire many full-time staffers. The cost of seasonal staffers—though limited to 980 hours per year—would be more efficient, he and other commissioners agreed. Felter also expressed his support for including volunteers in the operation, though Ondish said he was against the idea of relying too heavily on untrained volunteers.  Fernandez suggested that the commission look to marina employees, who have expertise in the maintenance of water vessels, as seasonal help in the non-summer months.

In the coming weeks, the committee that created the business plan will revisit it, taking in suggestions from the commission and the public, to create a final plan with firm numbers. At the December meeting, the commission can then vote on a budget, which requires the affirmative votes of eight commissioners.

Within that budget, the weed-harvesting cost, which is likely to be between $446,000 and $650,000, depending on number of employees proposed, will be presented to the state for consideration as officials plan for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. “The statute mandates that we submit a budget,” said alternate commissioner Mike Brunson. “The worst they can do is say no. Let the new governor say no.”

Felter said he’s hoping the business plan will give the state some direction, and said the towns that had volunteered services would likely have to continue to do that in order for the weed-harvesting operation to continue.

To put the request into perspective, McCarthy said that the commission was originally given $3 million when it started—$1.5 million to purchase equipment, and $1.5 million as the first year’s operating expenses, including weed harvesting and storm water management. “When we ran into funding problems, that was reduced to $800,000 to $900,000,” he said, as a bare minimum to fund the lake. “Now we’re down to [planning for] $400,000 for two to three people.”

Donna Rendeiro, who represents the N.J. Department of Community Affairs on the commission, said the commission should aim high when it makes its request in Trenton. “You are inevitably going to get cut, so don’t start with [the lowest plan of] two full-time employees,” she said. “The story should be that you started with $1.5 million.”

Commissioner David Jarvis agreed, but said he disliked the fact that the commission would have to take that approach. “It’s a shame you’ve got to play games like that,” he said. “It’s so wrong.”

 

To read the Star-Ledger story on the meeting, click here.

To read the AIM Jefferson story on the meeting, click here.

To read the Daily Record story on user fees, click here.

To read the Daily Record column, "Will Christie ‘rescue’ Lake Hopatcong?", click here.

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