Water quality fee suggested
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is joined by supporters as he announces his plan for the Water Quality Protection Fee at a press conference on Monday.

Photo courtesy of Suffolk County

Water quality fee suggested

Story By: LIZ FINNEGAN
4/28/2016


SUFFOLK COUNTY—On Monday, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone called upon the county’s residents to make a commitment for the sake of better water quality. That commitment involves adding a fee onto every water bill—residential and commercial—that is considered one of the lowest in the country. However, he’s leaving the final decision in the hands of voters and hopes to get the proposition on the ballot by this November.

“This is an important day for Suffolk County. We’ve been talking about water quality for some time,” said Bellone. 

The county executive announced the initiative at a press conference where he was joined by bipartisan elected officials, environmental activists and civic leaders who also support this plan that would begin to reverse the decades-long nitrogen pollution that has imperiled our ground and surface water. “We know what the problem is. We know what the solution is,” he added.

The referendum suggested is for a Water Quality Protection Fee on water usage that would help to fund converting antiquated septic systems in homes to more efficient, high-tech systems. A surcharge of $1 per 1,000 gallons of water used per household would generate almost $75 million to address the high nitrogen issue. It’s been estimated that with average usage, the cost per family of four would be around $73 a month. Bellone said the added cost would still be below the national average, which is $5.25 per 1,000 gallons of water used. Although it would be capped at $1, there would be no end to the charge once implemented. This fee is in addition to Suffolk’s existing quarter percent sales tax that also goes toward better water quality.

Bellone praised Governor Cuomo on his commitment to the issue of water quality. “The governor has demonstrated great leadership on this issue,” he said, noting that he has led on a number of water quality initiatives. One of them is the establishment of the Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University as well as the $383 million investment to expand sewers in Suffolk County as part of the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan. The new proposed legislation would supplement that funding.

“This referendum would literally turn the tide on Suffolk County’s water quality crisis,” said Bellone.

A staunch supporter of this plan is Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, who said water quality is now the greatest challenge in the history of Long Island. 

“All of our water emerges from groundwater and the chief culprit is nitrogen,” he said, noting that two-thirds of it comes from the 365,000 homes in the county that have antiquated septic systems. “We are talking 20 cents per day. You can’t even buy a bottle of water for less than a buck.

“The Suffolk County Water Authority charges less for water than 90 percent of other [water providers] in the U.S. And Suffolk has more open space preservation and water protection than 45 of the 50 states, so I have confidence [in the voters],” he added, noting that everyone should be making the investment in better water quality

Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors Association, said that an investment in water quality is also an investment in the economic future of the region. “I see nothing but positives coming out of this,” Herbst said. He indicated that the investment would not only create jobs, but would also make it much more attractive for new, smaller businesses such as restaurants to open and also for larger businesses to stay on Long Island. “It’s the ripple effect. There will be an economic boom for the region while improving our quality of life.”

Bellone said although he firmly believes this plan would be successful he’s still open to other ideas to address the crisis. “If you have another idea, I want to hear it. Otherwise, get on board.”

However, Suffolk County Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) isn’t buying it.

“I think it’s a horrible proposal, an outright tax,” Cilmi said. “This is another in a long line of proposals that add to the cost of living on Long Island.”

Cilmi said he called SCWA and inquired about his last three years of water bills in a home where for most of the year only two people reside. “I’d be paying $216,” he said. He suggested others should also look into their own bills to determine the actual cost.

Before the referendum can be placed on the ballot, a Home Rule message has to be presented to the Suffolk Legislature by the state Legislature. If it’s agreed upon by the county, the bill is next debated in the Assembly and Senate. If adopted there, it then needs to be signed by the governor and eventually turned back over to the county where it would require a public hearing before it can be finalized for the November ballot.

New York State Assemblyman Andrew Garbarino (R-7th District) said he didn’t think the process could be completed in the state before the June 12 deadline. The last day of session is June 16. However, he has other apprehensions.

“I don’t think it will make it through the state Legislature,” he said. “We need more details.

“I’m happy the county executive is discussing this. I’ve been pushing for sewers—they’re not a luxury; they’re a necessity. But only 30 percent of the $75 million will be going to sewers, and that will have to change,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m against this, but I do have concerns.” Garbarino added that although he agrees people should be making an investment in better water quality, he said it’s unfair that only those who are paying for public water have to pay into that plan. “That will have to be worked out, too,” he said.

Bellone said he hopes this can all be resolved in order to get the referendum on the November ballot. If passed, an Advisory Committee, comprised of elected officials, community and environmental leaders from the county’s 10 towns and villages, will make recommendations annually to the county executive and the Legislature on the projects that should receive the funding.

“We cannot have a bright, prosperous future without protecting water quality,” Bellone said. “Let the people decide if they want to [protect it].”