The Lake Hopatcong Commission on Monday night continued to debate the pros and cons of shifting the weed-harvest operation and equipment over to state control, with a more thorough discussion forecast for the coming weeks.
“We just got a new [memorandum of] agreement,” commission chairman and Jefferson mayor Russ Felter said. “We had asked for some changes, they made a few of them. We will have a full discussion at the next meeting.”
The agreement has been in the works since last summer, when a temporary plan shifted the weed-harvest staff become employees of Hopatcong State Park through the Division of Parks and Forestry, which allowed for the weed harvest operation to take place. The plan was to become permanent in 2012, but because New Jersey law doesn’t allow for state employees to operate on equipment not owned by the state, ownership of the equipment, including the harvesters, was to be shifted to state control as well.
That didn’t sit well with some residents, who expressed concern that the harvesters would not be properly cared for and could be used on other bodies of water around the state, taking a Lake Hopatcong resource from local residents and risking introducing invasive species such as the water chestnut to the lake.
“Whatever agreement we make with this administration only lasts as long as that administration,” said Lake Hopatcong resident Tim Clancy. Clancy suggested that the state calculate the dollar amount that they would have spent taking over the operation and instead give that amount the commission to run things itself.
For now, the commission paid $4,514 to insure the equipment, since it has not yet shifted into the state’s self-insured hands. “We can’t leave the harvesters without protection,” Felter said.
Concern among residents and commissioners was further fueled by the salary offer made to the harvest operators, who rejected the hourly wage of $12.50 an hour with no benefits. Barry Marke, one of the operators, said he was hoping that issue could be resolved. “We would like to get back to work, and there’s work to be done,” he said.
Not much light was shed on the new, updated agreement on Monday, except for some indications that the employees’ pay would be increased, and a stipulation that the commission, should it decide to take over harvesting again, would have the equipment transferred back to its own ownership.
Felter asked that commissioners submit any comments or changes to him within two weeks, so that a final version of the agreement could be debated at the February meeting and then voted on.
He said that the commission had four options going forward: one, that the state would take over harvest operations and the commission “would basically reinvent itself;” two, that the state funds the commission fully (an option that he said “has reared its head lately); three, that the commission would get private funding, raising the money itself for the weed harvest and other operations; or four, the commission goes out of business. “There are certainly problems with each of them,” he said, adding that they could craft a combination of those approaches. User fees, he said, are a nonstarter among the state legislators. “If we sound frustrated, it’s because we are,” he said. “Nobody’s more frustrated about this than I am.”
On a bright note, Felter mentioned that the building was complete in Franklin to store most of the weed-harvest equipment. “They did a nice job,” he said. “They did promise us that and they came through.”
Commissioner Daniel McCarthy said the real issue isn’t the ownership of the weed harvesters, but the strange conundrum the commission is in as an “in but not of” entity to the state. “That’s the issue that should be addressed here,” he said. “That’s the problem. This is just an extension of that problem.” He pointed out that the commission uses state money to pay for insurance when it could instead be under the state’s umbrella of coverage, and said as long as the commission was in this ambiguous place where it was restricted as a state entity, but without access to the benefits, it was spinning its wheels. “We’re going to Chicago by way of Tallahassee here,” he said. “That’s the real problem.”
Commission administrator Donna Macalle-Holly said that whatever the solution would be, it would need to be determined soon. “If we don’t go forward with this agreement in the next four to six weeks, we won’t get staff to work on the equipment for this summer’s weed harvest,” she said. “And then where will be?”
In other news:
• The commission held a moment of silence to recognize the sudden passing of Morris County Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, a state legislator whose wife, Betty Lou, serves on the commission.
• Kerry Kirk Pflugh, the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection representative on the commission, introduced Steve Ellis, who is temporarily taking over operations at Hopatcong State Park after the retirement of Helen Maurella. “I’ll be the point of contact,” he said. “Anybody can reach me through Russ [Felter].”
• The meeting schedule for 2012 was approved, with dates scheduled for February 21 at Hopatcong State Park; March 19, April 16, and May 21 at the Roxbury Municipal Building in Ledgewood; June 18, July 16, and August 20 at the Jefferson Municipal Building; September 17, October 15, November 19, and December 17 at the Mt. Arlington Municipal Building, and January 14, 2013 at Hopatcong State Park. All meetings begin at 7 p.m. and will be held the third Monday of the month except in cases of holidays. McCarthy, who represents Hopatcong, was concerned that the Hopatcong Senior Center would not be hosting meetings for the year, and administrator Macalle-Holly said that conflicts prevented it from fitting the commission’s schedule. McCarthy was going to look into it further, and if the conflicts are resolved within 10 days of Monday night's vote of approval, the venues may change slightly. The dates, however, will remain the same.
• Cliff Beebe complained that the state held the drawdown this year, keeping the lake 26 inches below the dam height. “It doesn’t help my docks that the bottom of the pilings are exposed,” he said. “A healthy lake is a full lake.”
• Kirk Pflugh said the Water Level Management Plan committee would have its annual review meeting sometime the week of February 13 at Hopatcong State Park. That meeting will allow the stakeholders to review the water-level plan in light of the events of the last year, including the Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee flooding, to determine if any changes should be made.
The next meeting of the Lake Hopatcong Commission will be held at 7 p.m. on February 21 at Hopatcong State Park.