When the Lake Hopatcong Commission meets for a special session on Wednesday, the group has a serious question to try to answer: specifically, how to continue to operate without any sign of funding from the state that formed it. So what are the possible outcomes?
First, some background on how the commission arrived at this juncture. The Lake Hopatcong Commission itself was formed by the state as a result of the locally driven "Save the Lake 2000" campaign. At that time, the idea of the group was to take the Lake Hopatcong Regional Planning Board a step further, creating a fully staffed and funded organization that would implement all of the commission's recommendations, including those that deal with weed harvesting, stormwater management, and water quality. When the Lake Hopatcong Protection Act was passed in January 2001, the commission was given $3 million for start-up costs from the general fund of the state, and required to submit a budget request annually to continue operations. It had 11 voting members, and a staff of 10.
In November 2008, because of a lack of funding from the state, the staff members had to be laid off, with the exception of administrator Donna Macalle-Holly, who remains with the commission today. In 2009 and 2010, the state has provided some emergency funding for weed harvesting at the start of the summer, either through last-minute allocation in the budget or through I Boat NJ grant money. (The state also provides the funding for regular water-quality monitoring through DEP grants.)
This year, no such funding survived the budget negotiation process. In the spring, the commission spent some of its limited funds (about $32,000) to prepare the weed harvesters for use, and in June, voted to move forward with weed harvesting through July, allocating the last of its money toward that effort.
As a result, the length of the weed-harvest effort is unclear, as is the exact direction of the commission itself. And the commissioners will meet at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at the Mt. Arlington Borough Hall to decide where to go from here. A few directions they might be headed:
- Crunching the numbers and keeping operations going with what resources they already have. This, actually, is a definite. Commission chairman Russ Felter said the commission will have a spreadsheet to go over on Wednesday to determine just how long they can run the harvesters. Felter said the commission does have the money to continue operations through the end of July, and can use alternative means (I Boat NJ grant money, shared services from the towns, etc.) to keep things going, as long as the commissioners agree to do so. "Complete shutdown is not an option," Felter said on Tuesday. "We have enough money to go through the end of the year. Even if we didn't continue harvesting, there are some things we have to do." For example, the commission needs to continue administering grants through the end of the year. Legal counsel has advised the commission that they can't purposefully spend money they don't have, but Felter said that is not going to be an issue in the near future. And in the long term, he said, he wouldn't put commissioners in that position.
- Waiting for last-minute state funding. As in recent years, there's always the possibility that the state could come in and provide just enough money to keep the weed-harvesting operation running through the end of the summer. "We'll see what happens," Felter said. "But there are still discussions at the state level of getting some money."
- Unwinding assets. At least one commissioner is said to be proposing the idea of auctioning off the weed harvesters; though it's unclear whether the commission has that authority. "That's not happening," Felter said flatly. "One way or the other, we are going to continue harvesting this year and in the future. Stopping is not an option."
- A public-private funding solution. There is at least one serious on-the-ground effort, beyond just the discussion stage, to raise money for the commission's operations among the local community—through small donations from residents, businesses, and boaters. With enough contributions, that might keep the commission in business and extend the weed harvest, and could be combined with any last-minute funding from the state, too. The commission could give such a move its blessing as part of a long-term funding solution.
- User fees. This has been a somewhat controversial option, but has come up several times in recent years. Specifically, there would be a fee for those who launch boats on the lake, and that fee would end up paying for the weed harvest and other commission operations. The idea was shelved last year when it was determined that such a fee collection would go into the state general fund instead of remaining local, and the fear of it being raided for other state purposes kept the commission from favoring that plan. Faced with no money from Trenton—and, therefore, no weed harvesting—the commission might decide to revisit the issue.
- Other alternative funding suggestions. A subcommittee to research alternative funding sources has been reconvened, and may have ideas to present to the commission. In the past, this committee has looked at grant opportunities and other sources of funding that would be reliable sources of money year after year. In the past, follow-ups on these options have proved to be fruitless, but with the commission basically in crisis mode, all possibilities are expected to be revisited.
With two Lake Hopatcong Commission meetings within the week, the discussion of the group's long-term plan is on the front burner, at least. Lake Hopatcong News & Reviews will have full coverage of Wednesday's special meeting and of Monday's regular meeting; check back here for updates.