User Fees Not Solution to Lake Woes, Residents Say
Lake needs money after funding bill stalled by senate.
When it comes to how to fund work on Lake Hopatcong now that Bill S495 is being held up by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, many ideas are being floated around. However, the one that seems to be the least popular is user fees.
The lake stands to lose about $150,000 if the bill is not passed, which Gov. Chris Christie has promised to veto unless a tax cut is instituted. While the money has to be made up somewhere, most agree that user fees are not the anwer.
“We’ve discussed user fees before, and they won’t fly,” Lake Hopatcong Commission chairman Russ Felter said. “People see them like another tax, and they don’t want to pay any more taxes.”
“You can call them anything you want, but user fees are a tax,” Ray Fernandez, owner of Bridge Marina and a lake resident, said.
The problem with user fees, Fernandez said, is that once they start, gradually people will stop registering boats for the lake, which will mean that over time, fewer users will have to keep paying higher fees.
“Within 10 years or so, you’d have a $500 user fee, and who wants to pay that,” Fernandez said.
User fees wouldn’t be dedicated lake funding, according to lake resident John Kurzman.
“We already have non-tidal boat fees, and that money doesn’t come back to the lake,” he said.
According to Sen. Anthony Bucco, sponsor of Bill S495, the state generates about $4 million per year from non-tidal boat fees. But those fees go to the state’s general fund, and don’t get used for lake funding.
“I can’t see why $150,000 of that $4 million can’t be dedicated to preserving the lake,” Bucco said. “Lake Hopatcong generates about $20 million in revenues per year to the state, and the state would miss that money if it wasn’t coming in. So why can’t the lake have some of that money?”
Weeds will continue to be harvested on the lake thanks to a memorandum of understanding between the Lake Hopatcong Commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), at a cost of about $125,000 per year.
“The fact that they are continuing weed harvesting is huge, and I don’t think it’s been given the respect it deserves,” Fernandez said. “That is one thing that will help the water quality. And it’s an admittance of responsibility by the state. They know that eventually they will have to help this lake.”
Kurzman, however, is a bit more skeptical.
“This is a memorandum of understanding, not an agreement,” he said. “I’m not convinced the state will keep up harvesting. What happens when the equipment breaks down? Will they replace it?”
And if weed harvesting were to stop, lake resident Tim Clancy said that could prove detrimental in more ways that one.
“If the weeds are still there, people will start using chemicals to kill them, and that will be a problem for the lake as well, because it will affect the water quality,” he said.“
Clancy pointed out that the lake needs the DEP money to address water quality issues.
“There are grants that the lake can get to address these issues, but they need administration, and that’s a big part of what we would miss if we didn’t have the money,” Clancy said. “We need someone to apply for those grants and administer them.”
If money for the lake is not forthcoming from the state, alternative options are in short supply. While Felter said there are “options being discussed that I can’t talk about publicly,” he also said he doesn’t know exactly what will come of the lake and its needs if funding doesn’t come through.
Kurzman, who sat on a committee to discuss alternative funding, said the committee came up with several ideas, but most of them would require some sort of approval process that would be difficult to get.
Fernandez believes that citizens should get more involved in the process of preserving the lake, particularly in the wake of lack of funding.
“There are a lot of things that individuals can do,” he said. “Maybe each lakefront homeowner should clean up the garbage that floats to their dock.
“Ultimately the lake will survive because the state will have to step up and fix it,” he said. “But the towns and the residents need to step up and take responsibility too.”
And Felter noted that what he called the “doom and gloom” outlook isn’t necessarily warranted.
“Everyone seems to think if we don’t get this money that there will be chaos and that’s not true,” he said. “We are still discussing other funding methods.”