CAPE MAY—Answers to a dispute between the City of Cape May and the Borough of West Cape May proved as hard to grasp as water running through the Wilbraham Park master meter on Oct. 21. The crowd that packed Cape May’s VFW Hall was instead treated to statistics, obfuscation, and politics.
The Concerned Citizens of West Cape May, host of the Water Rally, had promised to offer solutions to the problem of 121 million gallons of water that went missing between 2003 and 2009. The City and Borough have commissioned conflicting engineering reports to explain the problem, with each claiming the other is to blame.
John Francis, a candidate for West Cape May commissioner, opened the evening by playing his banjo. It proved to be the least contentious moment of the event.
Kathleen Gallagher, a former West Cape May resident and member of the Taxpayers Association, presented her research into the Borough’s water use and billing. She began her study in 2009 in response to a rise in water rates, and used public records requests to gather data.
Gallagher offered a mountain of statistics to the crowd. She claimed that West Cape May is not being billed for its actual water usage, with the outgoing flow from Cape May’s desalination plant actually 24% higher than what is being consumed in homes. She also said that since 2009, the amount of missing water has risen from 121 million gallons to 163 million gallons.
Things got more confused when Gallagher introduced the issue of sewer billing by the Cape May County MUA. She said that according to billing data, more water is going into the Borough sewers than is first passing through the water meters.
Next up was engineer Alan Mitchell, presenting what he called “A Tale of Two Cities.” His examination of the two engineering reports commissioned by the City and Borough raised the question of whether they were comparing apples to apples. Among significant differences between them, Mitchell noted:
• Cape May’s report included data gathered after the 2012 replacement of several master meters, while West Cape May’s data was gathered before the replacement
• MUA sewer flow data is not included in both reports
• The reports handle the 2003 rebuilding of the Canning House Road master meter differently
• The reports also account differently for a period when the Wilbraham Park master meter was shut down.
Before the Canning House Road meter was rebuilt, Mitchell said, it measured 29 million gallons of water flowing through the system annually. After the rebuild, it measured 56 million gallons. He wanted to know why nobody in West Cape May’s government had noticed the huge discrepancy.
Wayne Stewart, a West Cape May resident, questioned the accuracy of the meters. In his experience working with flow meters on commercial properties, he said, in general, meter readings might be expected to be off by only 5 percent.
Mitchell finally presented five “unresolved issues” that he feels need to be addressed. They include:
• An assessment by the Borough of all its customers, to accurately find all connections to the water system, and who gets their water from wells.
• An assessment of the entire West Cape May water system, to find leaks and unauthorized connections.
• A comparison of water billing by Cape May to sewer billing by the MUA
• A review of all accounting, billing, and operational procedures related to the water system
• Implementation of adequate controls for the water system, so that future problems would be discovered and addressed quickly.
Francis claimed to have a letter from Cape May Mayor Ed Mahaney offering to assist with a water system assessment, and wondered why the current Borough Council was not acting on the offer.
With the crowd clearly beginning to show frustration with the politics of the situation, John Rowley stepped forward. He produced a 2009 e-mail from Robert Flynn, former West Cape May Public Works Superintendent, to Mayor Pam Kaithern and Deputy Mayor Peter Burke. In it, Flynn stated that he had been monitoring water loss problems since 2006.
Rowley questioned the effectiveness of the current borough council, “This is a failure of management. What other failures of management are there?” he asked. “We need to have better controls.”
Various solutions were proposed. One person said the borough should sue Cape May. Others noted that the engineering reports were suspect, with results that favored whoever had paid for them. Rowley proposed that West Cape May consider merging the water distribution systems, so that the master meters could be removed, with Cape May billing West Cape May water customers directly, which, he asserted, would result in substantial savings.
With even the data in question, both sides in this water war seem to be entrenching for a long battle.