By Bob Conley
After Tropical Storm Isaias, which was just the latest in a series of major weather events, swept through New Jersey on Aug. 5, thousands were without power. All the usual suspects were factors in the outages and extended recovery time, including overhead wires, older street trees, help called in too late and poor communications. Some of those conditions can be mitigated but others pose monumental challenges.
Let’s look at the first two usual suspects. We not only love our tree-lined streets but trees are essential for our quality of life and many are on private property. They can be managed but trees will be coming down more frequently in climate change fueled storms. And let’s be realistic, the overhead wires will not be put underground any time soon. The cost and disruption are too prohibitive. Yes, the utilities need to put in an aggressive utility pole replacement program but that won’t cause outages to completely go away.
Madison is one of nine New Jersey municipalities that owns its electric utility, a very smart move made by our first mayor and council back in 1889. I know firsthand that pre-storm prep is essential. As the saying goes, prepare for the worst and hope for the best. JCP&L bringing in the crews after the storm is more of prepare for the best while praying that it isn’t the worst. Valuable time was lost with not only waiting for crews to arrive from out of state but then training them on JCP&L protocols while thousands were without power.
There is one issue that hasn’t been discussed that makes recovery from a major storm difficult: Doing business in New Jersey, the home-rule capital of the world. In a way, we have 565 siblings making up one big, mostly happy but very dysfunctional family.
As mayor for the past nine years, I know the mayor’s job description very well. No. 1 on the list is to fight hard for your residents. This means that on a given day there could be 565 mayors fighting for their residents and if we’re all on the same call it can get very overwhelming.
After the storm, JCP&L reported that all 39 Morris County municipalities had power outages, that’s 39 mayors pulling out all the stops to try to move their town up on the recovery list. Of course, this was a statewide storm so many of the 565 municipal leaders were working every angle. In the best case, it bogs down communication and managing the recovery and in the worst case, it creates a giant game of Whack-a-Mole as crews are shifted to the town who shouted the loudest or had the best connections.
Our own line crews had Madison fully restored within 48 hours of Isaias leaving town and on Day Three we loaned our crews to JCP&L to help neighboring towns. I got calls from every neighboring town asking for our help. I tried to balance their requests and soon realized how difficult it must be to be JCP&L or PSE&G handling calls from hundreds of towns not to mention every county. We have to be honest, New Jersey’s love for home rule makes it difficult to conduct business efficiently in our great state.
I also feel this challenge as we deal with COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, I have been participating in the Morris, Somerset and Union counties regular calls with the governor’s office. If we’re all on the call, that’s 82 mayors representing populations of 124,000 to as small as 412. Each mayor is given equal time and each fights for their residents on issues important to their constituents. On one call, a mayor asked about the timing of indoor dining, an important issue to many, while another mayor wanted to discuss garage sales, which was very important for that one community. Again, not the most efficient way to manage a crisis.
Rest assured I am not calling for the required merger of small towns but it is time that we recognize that while our electric utilities can do better, we must reduce the hurdles we have created. Every mayor wants to be heard, but that cannot happen during major power outages as we each try to outshout or outplay the others in the goal to do the best for our residents.
I would suggest the state’s Board of Public Utilities set up a county or regional boards to serve as the conduit between the municipalities and each utility. Each board member would represent multiple towns and during times of widespread outages would be sitting in on the allocation of crews and repair progress. This would reduce the shouting to fewer voices. And, in between the storms, board members would be kept abreast of the infrastructure improvements, so every town knows what is going on.
It is time for us to leave Whack-a-Mole to the boardwalk and stop playing it with our electric utilities.
Madison Mayor Bob Conley is a lifelong resident of the borough.
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