Expressing concerns about the care for equipment, the amount that employees would be paid, and the long-term prospects for the Lake Hopatcong Commission’s role, residents on Monday night voiced complaints about an agreement—months in the works—that would shift ownership and management of the weed-harvest operation from the commission to the state.
“The state has finally agreed we’re worthy of something, let’s define that amount and bring it home here,” said Tim Clancy of Lake Hopatcong.
After years of trying to secure long-term funding from the state, the Lake Hopatcong Commission came to an agreement with Gov. Chris Christie’s office that would shift the weed-harvest employees to become state employees through Hopatcong State Park, and move the ownership of the equipment to the state as well.
Clancy said those moves had to translate into specific dollar amounts, and the state should instead provide that amount to the commission, which he said would be more adept at handling the local issues. “I think it’s important that you guys keep your finger in the game,” he said.
Mt. Arlington mayor and former commission chairman Art Ondish also expressed his concerns about the agreement. “You folks are at an absolute crossroads right now,” said Ondish, who added that he and Hopatcong mayor Sylvia Petillo both had reservations about the plan. “That equipment… is going to be destroyed and you’re going to be left with nothing. You guys have an opportunity… if you give the equipment away, you might as well just close up. I’m very, very concerned about this.”
Ondish said it was his belief that user fees for those who launch boats on the lake would be the only way to secure long-term funding for the commission’s operations to be conducted properly and thoroughly. “This commission was modeled after the one at Lake George,” he said. “And Lake George charges user fees.”
Commission chairman and Jefferson mayor Russ Felter said he was tired of the “doom and gloom” rhetoric, and that there had been promising discussions with state officials, with more talks scheduled for the coming days and weeks. “There are things we’re looking at now that six months ago didn’t seem possible,” he said.
He also said that several of the concerns brought up—including the pay scale offered to seasonal employees—were concerns of his as well.
Barry Marke, who has worked as a weed-harvest staff member for the commission, put specific numbers on that issue when he spoke to the commissioners. He said he had been offered a job and signed papers weeks ago, with no response from the state. On Friday, he said he was called and told he would be hired at a pay of $12.50 an hour. “To me, that’s an insult,” he said. “When you’re talking about pieces of equipment worth $200,000, and paying someone $12.50 an hour to run it—that makes me pause. We trained for 10 years and are highly qualified, doing all the maintenance on it. We were hired as operators, not low-end lawn cutters.”
Marke said the wages offered are a reflection of how the Department of Environmental Protection, which would own the equipment, will treat the operation. “If the DEP is thinking in these terms, what are they thinking about the equipment? I can’t imagine much. If you want to keep these things in good shape… think twice. Look at actions, not words.”
Of the three long-term workers who were offered jobs, Marke said two—including himself—were not going to take it. “It’s not a good situation,” he said.
Kerry Kirk Pflugh, who represents the DEP on the commission, said the salaries were set by civil service, and were not a result of crafting a new position within the department.
Felter described the pay offer as “an embarrassment” and said he wasn’t happy with that and several other things in the plan. But he said the commission has few alternatives for long-term funding, so although issues will need to be worked out, the general agreement is a good one.
The criticism didn’t arise, he said, until the salary figures came out. “Nobody had a real problem with this when the state was going to pay for everything,” he said.
Commissioners Richard Keir and Dan McCarthy said they felt conflicted about the plan as it stood. McCarthy talked of the benefits of taking so much of the inefficient cost of the weed harvest out of the commission's hands, but said that local control shouldn't be relinquished. “We need to take a close hard look at what we’re doing, and the end product should include some type of participation with this commission. I think that’s very important. We need to take our time with this and get it right.”
The memorandum of agreement at the center of the discussion—which outlines the plan for the shift in responsibility and ownership—was to be discussed in an executive session, not open to the public. More information and an updated plan should be available at the January meeting.
In other news, Fred Lubnow of Princeton Hydro presented a summary of his year-end water quality report, with the full report to be provided next month. He said the 2011 season was a particularly wet one, which contributed to good oxydation throughout the entire water column during four of the five monitoring events. In addition, the monitoring station in Crescent Cove displayed the highest total phosphorus concentrations, but overall phosphorus concentrations were generally low on the lake, he said.
Lubnow also mentioned that the brown trout habitat was available throughout the entire 2011 growing season.
Because of the shorter weed-harvest season—about two months— a relatively low amount of aquatic plant biomass (1,231 cubic yards, or 0.4 percent) was removed, Lubnow said. Still, “the lake has been improving, especially since the 1990s,” he said.
Kirk Pflugh agreed, saying that Lake Hopatcong “is a documented success story” at the DEP.
The commission agreed to continue to hold its meetings on the third Monday of the month for the 2012 year. Next month’s meeting, however, is scheduled for the third Tuesday, because of the Martin Luther King Day holiday: 7 p.m. on Jan. 17 at Hopatcong State Park in Landing.