Camden City Council members voted Monday to hand over operation of the water and sewer system serving most of the city to American Water, the state's largest private water utility.
American Water is expected to take over from the current operator, United Water, in February. Before the unanimous vote, Council President Frank Moran said he believed American would remedy problems that have plagued the city for years, such as brown tap water in some parts of Camden.
"We live in this great country. The least we can do is provide good-quality water for our residents," Moran said. "We have all the hope and expectation that this contract will improve the quality of the water, and the delivery of the water, to the residents of this city."
Held at noon four days before Christmas, the meeting was attended by few residents, and the matter was decided in less than 15 minutes. Hearings this year also drew little interest.
In addition to taking over Camden's system, the Voorhees-based American Water may move its headquarters there. In June, the state Economic Development Authority authorized $164 million in tax credits if American relocates under the Grow NJ Program, which allows the broad use of tax incentives to lure businesses to impoverished cities.
American Water has strong political connections. The company has donated to the Republican Governors Association, and the president of local subsidiary NJ American Water is on the board of Choose NJ, the group that has paid for some of Gov. Christie's international travel.
Company representative Denise Venuti Free has said the EDA application was unrelated to the company's proposal to run Camden's systems. This week, she said that the company is in negotiations with two developers in Camden and that she hoped a decision would be made by early next year.
American had an existing interest in Camden. NJ American Water has for decades owned and operated a system providing water for the Cramer Hill section, which serves about a third of Camden's residents.
Camden's history with United Water has been contentious. A 2009 state audit compared the city's water conditions to those of a third-world country, finding that as much as 45 percent of the water supply was lost to leaks, overflow, meter inaccuracies, and billing errors. An agreement was reached between the city and United to improve service, but complaints about water quality persisted, which many say is due to the city's aging infrastructure.
The annual contract with American Water is for $12.6 million, less than United's $14 million. American representatives said that their water will taste better, due to changes in the chlorination systems, and that there would be improved controls to eliminate leaks.
The city has committed to capital improvements, said David Choate, president of American Water's contract services group, and American will work with city leaders on prioritizing such projects. The company has also made offers to retain all 45 employees who work for United in Camden, Choate said.
Lena Smith, an organizer with the watchdog group Food and Water Watch, was one of the only people to speak against the vote at Monday's meeting. She urged Council to consider ending the privatization of the city's water and sewer systems and to instead hire a qualified water director to work on reducing costs and improving service.
"The city's experience with United Water has demonstrated that water privatization has failed Camden residents," she said. "The City of Camden should not expect American Water or any other private company to solve its water and sewer woes."