For the fourth time in less than a year, the Trenton Department of Water and Sewer, which operates Trenton Water Works, has a new acting director.
Mark Lavenberg begins the job Monday with a full agenda, which includes meeting the mayors of the surrounding townships that he will be serving. Three of the four are part of a lawsuit brought by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to force Trenton to make promised improvements to address lead and other hazards. He will also have to convince the Trenton City Council to pass the financing needed to satisfy DEP concerns.
This is not his first time at the water works. He was last there six months ago working for a contractor, Operations Services, Inc., when there were staff shortages at the filtration plant.
“When I first came on to the scene in January of 2019 … there was only two operators that were actually sitting in the operator’s chair at the Trenton filtration plant,” Lavenberg said.
Six operator-trainees were brought on shortly after Lavenberg began. Seventy new employees that have been hired since Sept. 2019, according to the city, as part of their plan to stop relying on contractors for day-to-day operations. The contract with Operations Services, Inc. ends this summer.
Lavenberg said the biggest “leg up” he has coming into his new role is knowing the people he worked with previously.
“It was a great opportunity to work with these people,” he added.
Lavenberg said he is returning to Trenton for the people, “so they can retain their jobs.”
“I want to save these people from any possibility of any privatization,” he added. Lavenberg also mentioned that he was able to keep the water systems in Bridgeton and New Brunswick from going private when he oversaw departments in those towns.
Trenton Water Works is under a consent order to comprehensively improve operations. The city council rejected an $83 million proposed bond for improvements to the Water Works in May.
That rejection was cited when the state announced a lawsuit against the City of Trenton in June. Three of the four municipalities served by Trenton – Hamilton, Ewing and Lawrence — filed to join the lawsuit against the city. NJ.com reported one of the remedies being sought by the townships is a forced sale of the water works.
Mayor Reed Gusciora said, in response to the suit, that the water works is not for sale. The mayor also said the city began addressing DEP, including the first phase of replacing lead service lines. To date, 1,400 lines have been replaced, he said. The city hopes to replace 4,300 by mid-2021. Gusciora also touted the staffing improvements and the launch of a corrosion-control project to keep lead particles from leaching into the drinking water.
Lavenberg said he wants to reassure the mayors of the townships serviced by Trenton Water Works that he shares their concern about improving water service.
“I don’t want to sound like the ‘Six Million Dollar Man,’ but we have the technology, we have the treatment plant but more importantly, we have the personnel in place,” he said.
But still, Lavenberg needs to convince the Trenton City Council to approve the funding needed for improvements to satisfy all parties involved. He said it’s all about communicating the urgency and the need to get it done and finding out why the council is saying no.
“Whatever they need,” Lavenberg said, “if they need transparency, if they need to see records, if they need to know how the whole process works, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure they have that and they can make an informed decision.”
He adds, “In the end, it is about does the City of Trenton want to retain Trenton Water Works or are they willing to let it go into a lawsuit … I don’t know how that would end.”
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