By Jano Tantongco
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, along with various elected officials and environmental advocates, announced Monday a proposal that would let the county implement a surcharge on water usage that would go towards funding upgrades to the county’s wastewater infrastructure.
For the proposal to be set in motion, Bellone said Suffolk officials need issue a home rule message to the state that would authorize the measure to be placed on the ballot in November as a referendum. If passed through the state Senate and Assembly and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, county voters would then be able to have their say in November.
The proposal is still being mulled over by at least one Suffolk legislator.
On Wednesday, Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said he is currently undecided on the imposing of the surcharge, but does support “the idea of a referendum because it allows people to make choices about what they’re willing to pay for.”
Additionally, he said, Huntington has had its own particular challenges with its waters, but added that the town has set examples for others to follow.
“I think that where we fit into this equation is we’ve made strides, and we’ve been able to see the results of having good water quality policy,” he said, noting the re-opening of Centerport Beach last year after it had been closed since 2010 due to high bacteria levels in the water.
Regarding the cost of the surcharge, which would be $1 per every 1,000 gallons used by residences and/or businesses, Spencer said that if it were enacted, country residents’ water bills would still be “substantially lower” than those living in Nassau and New York City.
According to county spokeswoman Pam Robinson, the surcharge would tack on an extra $73 per year to the average household’s water bill. The origin of that figure could not be confirmed before deadline.
Overall, county officials estimate the surcharge would generate around $75 million annually for Suffolk, which would be earmarked for reducing nitrogen pollution in local bodies of water.
“Clearly what we have seen over the decades is a decimation of our surface waters,” Bellone said during a conference call with members of the media on Monday. “The latest numbers showing disturbing trends in the groundwater. The overwhelming source of that nitrogen pollution is from us.”
Bellone said Suffolk’s current wastewater treatment system uses more than 360,000 outdated cesspools and septic systems.
“We know what the problem is. We know what has caused the harmful algal blooms, red tide, brown tide, and unprecedented fish kills and closed beaches,” he said. “And, largely, we know what the solution is: Water quality infrastructure.”
Bellone said an advisory committee with representatives from the 10 towns across Suffolk would be established to determine how to best use the funds, and where to focus on upgrades.
Richard Amper, executive director of environmental advocacy nonprofit Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said that those 360,000 homes emit two-thirds of local nitrogen pollution because they’re fitted with “5,000-year-old technology, rings where we’re dumping our wastewater from our homes and businesses directly into groundwater.”
“And, we’re wondering why we’re producing these algae blooms,” he added. “Government needs to help out here. The kind of revenue that we’re developing here is almost painless.”
Amper added that Suffolk has initiated tests of various kinds of treatment systems in 19 private homes to help determine the best system to eventually utilize across the island.
Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors Association, also stressed that another aspect of the undertaking would be job creation.
“The contractors that I represent construct infrastructure for our region. Every construction job, every position, creates a ripple effect of two additional jobs. The workforce will benefit,” he said. “It’s really an economic boom to have this done, while we’re improving the quality of life.”