By Dan Moffett

    A positive report from Commissioner Clark Appleby has given the Manalapan Town Commission reason to take the next steps in exploring a water utility deal with Boynton Beach.
    Appleby, a financial adviser by trade, studied the potential impact of selling the town’s system and found that most of Manalapan’s customers would see their water bills decrease if the deal with Boynton goes through.
    “About 85 percent or more of the users would be saving money,” he told the commission during its March 22 meeting.
    Appleby said Manalapan cannot match those lower rates  if it keeps its water system because the town does not have a large enough customer base. He said the plant currently is running at only 49 percent capacity and there isn’t enough volume with 880 customers to drive down cost.
    Boynton Beach has more than 100,000 customers — size enough to keep rates low.
    Making matters worse, before much longer the town will have to replace its aging infrastructure of pipes, an overhaul that will cost about $5 million.
    “That’s a huge hurdle for us,” Appleby said. “I don’t think this town wants to take on $5 million in debt.”
    Appleby recommended continuing talks for a deal with Boynton Beach. The commission unanimously agreed.
    Commissioners also agreed that, after hearing former Ocean Ridge Mayor Ken Kaleel urge them to get a more comprehensive study from an outside source, an additional analysis would be a good idea.
    “This is a huge, huge decision — it could be the biggest decision that you’ll make,” said Kaleel, a lawyer with clients in Manalapan. “Maybe this is good for the short term. But is it good for the long term?”
    Kaleel told the commission that Ocean Ridge made sure to maintain control of its pipes and delivery system when contracting with Boynton Beach for water. He said that keeping ownership of the infrastructure would give Manalapan more latitude to handle regional water shortages in years ahead.
    “We have a static customer base, and we’re faced with a fairly significant capital expenditure,” said Mayor David Cheifetz, who argued that the town should continue talking to Boynton while getting a consultant lined up for an independent review of the plan’s long-term impact.
    Commissioners said they would consider holding a public workshop once the review is done to get input from residents.
    In other business,Vice Mayor Peter Isaac said the Audubon Causeway bridge project still has a chance “to be substantially complete” before August.
    Isaac said he expects the south side of the bridge to be finished during the first two weeks of May, which will allow the removal of weight restrictions on traffic. Workers then will have 11 weeks to complete the north side.
    “There’s still a shot at the end of July” target date, he said.

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