Bellone eyes Suffolk sewer district merger

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Photo credit: Newsday/Daniel Goodrich | Aerial views of the Bergen Point Sewage Plant in West Babylon. (July 25, 2008)

by PAUL LAROCCO, Newsday
August 8, 2012

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is backing the long-debated idea of merging the county's 21 disparate sewer districts with its independent water authority. 

In an interview Wednesday, Bellone said he's in "serious discussions" with the Suffolk County Water Authority to jointly study the issue. If it proves feasible, he'd then solicit public comment and request state legislation necessary to implement the consolidation. 

"This makes sense for us in so many different ways," Bellone said. "There are so many synergies here between what a water authority does and what you need to do to improve sewer infrastructure." 

Bellone said the joint water and sewer authority could more easily make improvements to protect water quality, and fast-track new projects necessary for large commercial and residential development.

Only 30 percent of Suffolk homes and businesses are served by sewer systems, with the rest reliant on cesspools. The sewer districts -- with 270 employees and combined annual budgets of $115 million -- now carry $427 million in debt.

A deal could relieve the county of that debt, and bring it a large lump sum payment for its sewer assets, said the administration, which had no estimate on what the consolidation could save the county, or cost the SCWA. Suffolk faces a projected budget deficit of $300 million. 

Water Authority chairman James Gaughran said it was too early to estimate how many county sewer workers a joint agency would need. But he suggested that the proposal could create construction jobs. "You'd actually see the floodgates open in terms of new sewer piping and construction," he said.

But Tom Shanahan, an Albany lobbyist who has represented numerous public water clients, including the SCWA, recalled that the idea came up in the early 1990s, but failed to gain traction in the county legislature. "I think they were right," Shanahan said of the opponents. "Putting all the sewer districts under the water authority is likely to transfer cost responsibilities from the individual districts onto all authority customers."

The SCWA, which was created by state legislation, serves most of the county. Its board members are appointed by the county legislature. It has 575 employees and $156 million in annual revenue from about 400,000 customers. 

Gaughran said it was too early to predict how consolidation would affect water rates. Bellone said protecting ratepayers is "a top priority." 

Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), who along with Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) has been pushing for consolidation for several years, recently formed a panel to study creation of a single sewer district.

"Here we have an organization with employees already dealing with plumbing, engineering and water issues," Horsley said. "They have a ready-made staff to assist in the growth of sewers." 

This year, Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches) endorsed consolidation as a way to relieve the county of its sewer debt. "It makes sense, but is going to require a careful study," Romaine said Wednesday. 

Steve Jones, the water authority's chief executive from 2000 to 2010, cited many municipalities with combined sewer and water supply functions, including New York, Los Angeles and Indianapolis. "The fit is good for Long Island," he said. However, he added that the impact of transferring sewer debt onto the SCWA should be examined carefully.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an advocacy group with offices in New York and Connecticut, said consolidation could be a "big change for the better. Putting water and sewage infrastructure under one entity allows for better protection and better planning," she said. With Sarah Crichton

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