“If we want harvesting, this is the deal,” Lake Hopatcong Commission chairman Russ Felter told a crowded room at Hopatcong State Park on Tuesday night for the commission's monthly meeting. “Either we do this and harvest or we don’t do it and don’t harvest.”
The deal he spoke of, which has been in the works since last summer, would transfer ownership of the weed harvesters and management of the harvest operation from the commission to the Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Parks and Forestry, through Hopatcong State Park. In lieu of funding the commission’s budget, the state would take over the major cost associated with its operations, thereby allowing it to remain functional while also ensuring the lake gets a full weed harvest this summer.
Although the plan was widely praised at first, questions started to surface as the details were worked out; specifically, there were concerns about shifting ownership of the commission’s harvesters to the state, and the salary offered to the employees—one full-time foreman and six seasonal workers—was quickly rejected as too low for the skilled labor required to run the machines.
On Tuesday, Felter assured the public that through the efforts of the commission—specifically, Hopatcong commissioner Dan McCarthy—and state officials, a new Memorandum of Understanding has been crafted to address those concerns, shifting much of the language away from “permanent” and toward “temporary.” There is, for example, the option for the commission to take the equipment back if funding is established for the weed-harvest operation. “[The state has] really stepped up here, and were willing to make the changes,” Felter said. He added that the salaries are being worked out with the state’s Civil Service Commission. And some new language, including a requirement that the state provide the commission with the same maintenance and weed-removal information log that the commission has kept in the past, had been added to address commissioners’ questions.
The possibility of state funding is still there; Felter is testifying next week in Trenton in support of a bill that would establish a Lake Hopatcong Fund of $400,000, down from the initial $700,000 requested. The bill is sponsored by local legislators, including state Sens. Anthony R. Bucco and Steven V. Oroho, and Felter expressed optimism regarding its passage, especially in light of the support of Gov. Chris Christie.
But even if such a bill were to pass, the funding wouldn’t be available until August or September, which would mean the lake would not be able to have a weed harvest this year. Because of that, this solution through the D.E.P. seemed to be the only option.
Although members of the public had voiced concerns over the plan, the sentiment at the end of Tuesday’s meeting was mostly in favor of the agreement.
“Every single concern I had has been addressed,” said Lake Hopatcong resident Tim Clancy at the end of the meeting. “I don’t see why anybody wouldn’t support it. Without it, there’s nothing… I’m very comfortable, all things considered, with this. I wish the best for our very skilled staff that that is negotiated in a favorable way. … These are very talented people, I hope you lobby very hard on their behalf. But I think the people who live on the lake, if they knew all of the intricate details you went through to get to this point, I think they would be in agreement that this is the best we could have hoped for under the circumstances.”
Lake Hopatcong resident John Kurzman was also generally pleased with the solution, and although he said some concerns remain—such as the safety risk of having only one full-time employee working on the machines during the winter, or the fact that the document, as a Memorandum of Understanding, is not binding—he and others in the room responded to the effort with a round of applause.
The agreement is not yet finalized, however: commissioners will reconvene at 6 p.m. next Tuesday, February 28 at the Mt. Arlington Borough Hall to approve the final drafted Memorandum of Understanding after taking Tuesday’s discussion into account and discussing it with the various municipal councils.
In other news:
• Instead of waiting until March 1, those who met on Feb. 17 for the annual review of the Lake Hopatcong Water-Level Management Plan determined that the absence of ice could allow them to begin filling the lake back up immediately, so the dam was closed on Saturday. It is now only letting out the required 12 cubic feet per second (prior to Saturday, the dam was controlled with the goal of maintaining the 26-inch winter drawdown).
• A slightly modified agreement for the Lake Hopatcong Commission meeting schedule for the remainder of the year was approved: the commission will continue to meet on the third Monday of the month at 7 p.m. In March, April, and May, those meetings will be at the Roxbury Municipal Building in Ledgewood; in June and July, they will be at the Hopatcong Civic Center in Hopatcong; in August and September, they will be at the Jefferson Municipal Building in Lake Hopatcong; and in October, November, and December, they will be at the Mt. Arlington Municipal Building in Mt. Arlington.
• Betty Lou DeCroce, who had served on the Lake Hopatcong Commission as a representative from the Department of Community Affairs, has taken over her late husband’s seat in the State Assembly. (Assemblyman Alex DeCroce died suddenly at the statehouse last month.) Felter said the commission’s thoughts are with DeCroce, and that he has asked the department for someone to fill that seat on the commission.
• Mt. Arlington’s town council passed a resolution to be sent to the state in favor of the bill that would provide long-term funding for the Lake Hopatcong Commission. “It would be nice to see similar resolutions from other municipalities,” McCarthy said. Anne Seibert-Pravs, the alternate Mt. Arlington representative on the commission, said the resolution had an important message. “We’re mandated by law to carry out these duties, yet we’re not receiving the funding to do our mandated work,” she said. The resolution also asks the state to fill one of its gubernatorial seats on the commission, which has been vacant since June of 2006.
• Cliff Beebe of Lake Hopatcong said the commission and the state were violating the law by changing the lake level at the dam. “We cannot endure 7.5 million gallons of water out of this lake every day,” he said. “You’re jeopardizing our rights.”
The next regular meeting of the Lake Hopatcong Commission is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, March 19 at the Roxbury Municipal Building in Ledgewood.