There isn’t much left for residents of Atlantic City these days, as one speaker put it. But there’s still one thing the city can be proud of.
“We do have the best water on the East Coast,” said Steve Young, president of the Atlantic City chapter of the National Action Network.
Young and about 30 others said Monday they want to keep that “best water.”
A water consumer rights group and a union representing most of the city’s Municipal Utilities Authority employees held a noon news conference outside city hall, outlining their opposition to giving the state power to dissolve and sell the MUA. They were joined by community leaders who also oppose a proposed state takeover of the city’s assets.
“Personally, I need my water,” said City Councilman Steven L. Moore. “There’s no doubt that this is a proposal that just can’t succeed.”
A draft memorandum of understanding giving Timothy Cunningham, director of the state Division of Local Government Services, control of the city’s municipal assets was received by Mayor Don Guardian on July 7. The document specifically gives Cunningham the right to “sell, convey, lease, or otherwise dispose of...water, sewer, wastewater, and storm water infrastructure.”
Moore said privatizing the water authority, which provides drinking water, would increase rates for residents. Most of the customers unable to afford the new higher rates would then have their water shut off, he said.
“Once your water’s shut off, then that means you can’t live in your home,” Moore added. “People will be displaced. People will be put out of their homes.”
Lena Smith, regional organizer for Food & Water Watch, the consumer rights group that helped organize the press conference, was critical of the draft agreement giving Cunningham the right to withhold 50 percent of the city’s Transitional Aid if the government failed to approve the agreement.
“Gov. (Chris) Christie is dangling the carrot of state aid over a financial cliff of privatization, telling Atlantic City that he will only release much needed state aid if they are willing to let the state of New Jersey privatize their water assets,” Smith said. “This unconscionable act is not much different than what international banks do to developing nations who fall into debt.”
In May, City Council unanimously voted down dissolving the water authority.
Representatives from the Atlantic City chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were at the press conference. They presented a resolution the association passed in May supporting the authority “remaining an independent authority and not be dissolved by Mayor Guardian and city Council.”
Dale Archie, president of Local 2646 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 71, which represents most of the authority’s employees, said the workers’ minds have been “tormented day in and day out” while the future of the authority has been unclear.
“‘Is this the last day that we will have employment?’“ Archie said, describing what the authority’s workers think when they wake up in the morning.
Guardian and Council President Frank M. Gilliam said last week that they opposed the terms outlined in the draft memo, which required approval by council and Guardian to go into effect. Gilliam and Guardian said Cunningham subsequently apologized for sending over the draft during a meeting last week between Cunningham, city officials, a staffer from Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney’s office and Casino Association of New Jersey and New Jersey American Water lobbyist Phillip Norcross.
Both Guardian and Gilliam oppose selling the authority, but are looking at ways to bring the authority under the city so it can become a long-term revenue source. One revenue source could involve the city selling water futures, charging outside water purchasers money up front in order to lock in a discounted rate later.