In an effort to move liability away from the Lake Hopatcong Commission, the group’s weed harvesting equipment will shift in ownership, with the N.J. Division of Parks and Forestry taking over the titles of the weed harvesters, transfer barges, boat, and pickup truck.
“Look at this as an opportunity to get out of something, and to focus on the positive,” said commissioner Kerry Kirk Pflugh, the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection representative, at Monday’s Lake Hopatcong Commission in Ledgewood. “Frankly, [the weed harvest] has been a burden to the commission… it almost bankrupted you.”
The shift in ownership of the equipment comes as part of a new long-term plan to manage the weed harvest on the lake. After years of waiting for last-minute funding, commission chairman and Jefferson Township mayor Russ Felter worked out a deal with the governor’s office over the summer that would shift the weed harvest operation, including the staff salaries—a major expense for the commission—to the state. Specifically, one full-time foreman and six seasonal workers would no longer be paid by the commission; rather, they will be employees of Hopatcong State Park.
Another major expense within the harvest operation has been the maintenance of the weed harvesters, as well as the cost of insuring them. Because the state is self insured, the Division of Parks and Forestry doesn’t have the insurance expense. “The insurance cost was an exorbitant amount of money,” said commissioner Richard Zoschak of Roxbury. “This was probably the best viable way to go.”
Commissioner Ed McCarthy, who represents Morris County, agreed, in light of the fact that the bulk of the commission’s budget was tied up in harvesting and associated costs. “It looks like it was probably the best way to go, and it looks like it’s going to work.”
Commissioner Dan McCarthy of Hopatcong, who served as chairman on Monday in Felter’s absence, expressed some concerns about the new arrangement. “My concern with this is I see the possibility of a lot of unintended consequences. … We [in the commission] should have some kind of role interfacing with the public,” he said, pointing out that residents have become accustomed to interacting with the commission regarding the harvest.
Kirk Pflugh said the commission would not have the authority to tell the staff what to do, but added that those employees have developed knowledge in their years of conducting the weed harvest. “They know the lake, they know the problem areas,” she said. “They’ll do what they need to do, but they won’t have a responsibility to come to this commission.”
Dan McCarthy suggested that the foreman could regularly make presentations to the commission, which Kirk Pflugh said could probably be worked out. “At this point, let’s let it play out,” she said.
The full-time employee will work year-round, but the six seasonal employees are limited to 944 hours per year. They are currently working to repair the harvesters (and the commission was able to use the last of its grant money from the I Boat NJ grant to buy parts, before turning them over to the state), but administrator Donna Macalle-Holly pointed out that the more hours they spend doing winter maintenance, the fewer hours they will be available to operate the summer harvest.
In following the Lake Hopatcong Commission’s enabling legislation, Dan McCarthy said that he had hoped the employees could conduct other operations related to the lake, such as monitoring and clearing out catch basins and conducting shore cleanups. Kirk Pflugh said those employees would be limited to weed harvest operations, so some other plan would likely have to be worked out.
“I’m comparing this through the lens of time,” Dan McCarthy said. “The commission did wonderful work in the early years that needs to carry on.” He also pointed at contentious issues, such as the water-level management plan, and said the commission is a necessary liaison between the state and the public. “Many tasks have to be accomplished, and I’m hoping for something better than a warmed-over version of the Lake Hopatcong Regional Planning Board.”
Taking the enabling legislation and business plan into account, a subcommittee is revisiting the commission’s long-term plan. The group has met once so far, Dan McCarthy said, but with Felter out at Monday’s meeting, there would be no updates as to its progress. For now, the commission will continue to rely on grant money to conduct its non-weed-harvest operations, such as water quality monitoring.
As for concerns about the long-term purpose of the weed harvesters, commissioners emphasized that they would remain active on Lake Hopatcong, even if they weren’t going to continue to be owned by the commission. “We have nothing that leads us to believe that the equipment is going anywhere else but to take care of the weed harvesting on Lake Hopatcong,” Macalle-Holly said. Until next summer, most of the harvesting equipment will be stored in a newly constructed building in Franklin, which is near completion and can hold the four larger harvesters. Alternative locations are being sought out for the smaller harvesters.
In other news:
- Former commissioner Bill Durand of Mt. Arlington, who served on the Water Level Management Committee, said he was extremely disappointed at the outcome of the committee, particularly in light of the flooding after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. “Some of the questions [I posed] remain unanswered,” he said. “That was, ‘could the lake tolerate a major rainstorm over a few days, and could the people monitoring the dam compensate for all the waters that would be flowing into the lake to prevent the flooding?’ … There was far too much pressure on the DEP to [respond to] commercial interests on the level maintained on the lake, and I think that has to be looked at by the parties that are the true owners of the lake, those who live around the lakefront.” He asked that the committee reconvene, which Kirk Pflugh said was scheduled to happen annually anyway, and would likely take place in January or February.
- The commission will be sending out a press release early next month regarding the proper use of Ice Eaters and other similar technology. “This is obviously a concern,” Dan McCarthy said. “I’d like to see the lake frozen for the length of time of the recreation season.”
- Cliff Beebe asked Kirk Pflugh for a private meeting with N.J. DEP commissioner Bob Martin. “I don’t believe he’s doing his business,” Beebe said, emphasizing that it was time to determine who owns the lake. “No one has ever seen the deeds to this lake.” Kirk Pflugh said the department has answered his request, providing the same answer time after time. “This is something you can take up on your own, with your own attorney,” she said.
- Macalle-Holly said the annual lake level drawdown has been taking place as scheduled, despite the particularly wet season that held the water level up farther into autumn than usual. She said the lake is dropping about an inch per day, and will continue to do so until it hits the 26-inch drop. (The next major five-foot drawdown is scheduled to take place in 2013.)