ATLANTIC CITY — The state announced it will not lease or sell the city’s water system to a private company, following more than a year of concern from residents and local activists about the fate of the Municipal Utilities Authority.

Mayor-elect Frank Gilliam, a city councilman, held a press conference Wednesday in City Hall to release the announcement from the state designee in the city, former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa.

“After speaking with community members and listening to their concerns about a potential privatization of the MUA, the State recognizes the important role the MUA plays in the community at large and the visible pride that city residents and businesses have in their water system,” the statement dated Monday said. “This allegiance was evident in this year’s petition drive in support of the MUA and in City Council’s vote to give city residents a say in any dissolution of the MUA. Therefore, the public can rest assured that the MUA will not be privatized by the state.”

The state previously urged the city to dissolve the MUA, but the city either pulled or voted down measures to do so before the state took over operation of the city in November 2016.

For months after, more than 100 people from civic associations, the local chapter of the NAACP, Food and Water Watch and a group called AC Citizens Against the State Takeover knocked on doors and collected signatures to protect the water system from being sold.

Residents and activists said water rates could go up if the utility were sold to a private operator.

The petition gathered more than 2,400 signatures, and City Council adopted an ordinance in July authorizing a referendum if officials decided to sell or dissolve the MUA.

Gilliam said he approached the state this month and asked for a statement to relay to the public because “people need closure,” he said.

Gilliam said getting the state’s word in writing was a proud moment because “it showed how power is really with the people.”

Sheila Hull-Freeman, of the Bungalow Park Civic Association, and Carol Ruffu, who serves as president of the Chelsea Civic Association, stood next to Gilliam at Wednesday’s press conference. Both worked on the effort to protect the MUA from privatization.

Hull-Freeman said the residents’ concerns about safety and economics were the main reason she got involved.

“We’re grateful that the community was receptive and understanding, and we’re also grateful that the efforts were recognized by Trenton,” she said.

Council President Marty Small released a statement praising the state’s announcement, saying the “intense effort” from residents and community groups put pressure on the state to prevent the sale.

“I and others spent numerous hours traveling to Trenton and meeting with state officials in an effort to make our voices heard. Today, I am happy to say that our voices have been heard and the people prevailed,” Small said.

Lena Smith, senior organizer with Food and Water Watch, said the effort to protect the MUA isn’t necessarily over.

“We had a good sense that there would be no action by the state,” she said, but added the group had not seen the statement from the state and learned about the decision for the first time Wednesday.

She said the group will keep tabs on the decisions of the incoming administration regarding the MUA.

, specifically whether it is dissolved or there is a partnering with the county. There have been discussions earlier this year about potentially bringing together the Atlantic County Utilities Authority and the MUA.

At the press conference, Gilliam said he was mainly concerned with keeping the water system from being privatized.

Nonetheless, Smith said the news is a “huge victory” for the residents.

“The water utility should remain as is to protect the system from private water profiteers,” Smith said. “The people have spoken, and their message was clear: ‘Our water, our voice.’”

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Contact: 609-272-7239 ESerpico@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressSerpico

Covering breaking news for The Press of Atlantic City since September 2016. Graduate of the University of Maryland, Central Jersey native.

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