New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. described the Suffolk County Water Plan. KITTY MERRILL
Suffolk County's "water czar," Deputy County Executive Peter Scully KITTY MERRILL
Kevin McDonald of the Nature Conservancy, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele , Jr, Deputy County Executive Peter Scully, and Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming at the May 4 water summit in Southampton Town Hall. KITTY MERRILL
Kevin McDonald of the Nature Conservancy, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr, Deputy County Executive Peter Scully, and Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming at the May 4 water summit in Southampton. KITTY MERRILL
If the Suffolk County Legislature acts expeditiously, voters this November will see a ballot proposal asking their approval on a sales tax increase of one-eighth of a penny, with the proceeds earmarked to fund clean water projects.
The clock is ticking, however, for the lawmakers to complete deliberations in time to get the “Clean Water Infrastructure Plan” on the ballot.
Last Thursday, May 4, Deputy County Executive Peter Scully, dubbed the county’s “water czar” by County Executive Steve Bellone, outlined a plan that, if approved by voters this year, would increase the county sales tax — it’d be higher than the sales tax in Nassau County but lower than that of New York City or Westchester.
The revenue from the one-eighth cent increase would be kept in a “lock box” and used solely to fund clean water projects. They include the elimination of cesspools and failing septic systems, connecting parcels to sewer systems through grants that make the upgrades, or sewer connections, affordable for homeowners. The county’s fund would serve as a local match needed to secure federal and state funding.
There are more than 380,000 cesspool septic systems in Suffolk County, Scully said, kicking off discussion of the initiative. Over 200,000 of them are in environmental priority areas, such as along the coastlines. Island estuaries listed as “impaired” and harmful algal blooms have become more frequent.
Studies have shown that excess nitrogen leads to the impairments, and 70 percent of that nitrogen comes from aged and failing septic systems.
“Rust tides, harmful algae blooms, and fish kills plague our waterways, close our beaches and impact all of Suffolk County,” Scully said.
Degraded water quality in bays and harbors harms the environment, but it also can have negative impacts on the economy. Scully’s presentation included statistics related to the fiscal importance of water quality to the county — and the East End’s shoreline-centric economy.
Surface waters annually support $750 million in beach-related activities, $500 million in boating expenditures, and $41 million in commercial fishing. Marine-related enterprises support over 35,000 jobs. Tourism-related economic activity featuring surface waters accounts for $3.2 billion countywide, and encompasses 7 percent of the workforce.
Hence, a county-wide water plan.
The key to advancing the plan is making it easy and affordable for property owners. To make it work, an organizational structure must be set up to manage installation and maintenance of clean water systems. Additionally, there needs to be a recurring source of funding.
Hence the proposed sales tax increase.
Officials looked at varying ways to generate the money for a clean water infrastructure plan. They considered a surcharge on water bills or assessing a charge against every parcel of property or even adding a charge to property tax bills.
None of them was a good fit, Scully said.
Ultimately, officials felt a sales tax increase of an eighth of a cent — an impact of 12 cents per $100 purchase — would be “almost invisible to the average consumer,” Scully said. There would be no new fees, no impact on property taxes. Visitors, and not just residents, would contribute.
Put in place and commencing in 2024, the fund could bank revenue approaching $58 million in its first year.
The county law will require all the money be spent on wastewater system upgrades, with 75 percent going toward individual clean water systems for property owners, and 25 percent allocated for sewer systems. It places top priority on projects targeting near-shore areas.
A map shown by Scully depicts priority areas that target the island’s south and north shores. The entire South Fork shoreline is included with at least half of the Town of Southampton and more than half of East Hampton Town lands listed as first priority areas. Brookhaven, Islip, and Babylon also feature a significant number of first priority parcels.
But Scully promised a “robust” representation from the East End on the board of trustees that will be named to oversee the use of the fund. Historically, East End town and village officials have complained that while their jurisdictions contribute significantly to the county’s sales tax revenues, the portion returned hasn’t reflected that.
The board of trustees would include representatives from the East End Mayors and Supervisors Association, Peconic Estuary Partnership, the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission, South Shore Estuary Reserve, the Suffolk County Village Officials Association and the Suffolk County Supervisors Association.
“I really like how you did this, in terms of protecting the East End,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said. He noted the East End is outnumbered on the legislature and while the local representatives “fight like hell for us,” Schneiderman said, “We don’t often get our fair share.”
Adding to the lockbox level of accountability, Scully said annual independent audits will be made public.
The county and the state both already have septic improvement grant programs, but homeowners are hardly signing up at a rapid rate. In all, just 3,923 applications for both programs have been received, with just 1,458 systems installed since 2017.
Most of the installations took place on the South Fork — with 396 in East Hampton and 458 in Southampton representing some $15.6 million in grants out of a total of about $28.5 million.
Both East Hampton Town and Southampton Town have additional septic upgrade programs; Southampton removed any income requirement for the grant, Town Planning and Development administrator Janice Scherer said, “because everyone flushes.” Each year, officials try to perfect it and make it more user friendly.
Still, New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. pointed to the pace the current programs are receiving applications and, comparing them to the over 380,000 old systems yet to be upgraded, he said dryly, “Sometime in the 22nd century, we will achieve our goal.”
The next step in the process involves the County Legislature forwarding a proposal for placement on November’s ballot. Local officials were asked to urge county lawmakers to conclude their deliberations in time — they need to send the proposal to the Suffolk County Board of Elections by the first week in August. “The time frame is fairly tight,” Thiele pointed out.
While brainstorming the creation of the plan, Scully said, emphasis was put on meeting the needs of a very diverse county. “There’s something for everybody in this plan,” he opined.
Thiele noted the program is “needs based,” the money goes along the coastline first, where it’s needed most.
There have been efforts over the last 15 to 20 years to find a comprehensive strategy for nitrogen reduction from sewage, Kevin McDonald of the Nature Conservancy related. “It has been a long road,” he said, describing the theory behind all the years of work. “If we could get federal, state, county and town resources committed to a comprehensive strategy to change our polluting septic systems in favor of clean technology, we can probably see water quality in less than 10 years improve,” he said, repeating, “Less than 10 years.”
The opportunity to scale up from just several hundred upgrades a year is, McDonald said, “transformative in its potential if we can work to achieve that.”
Legislator Bridget Fleming said she felt crafting the plan was “a very, very large undertaking.”
“This is a focus on the East End. This is very fair to the East End” she said, while assuring the plan is “a very well balanced program intended to address both the west end and the East End.”
The ball’s in the Suffolk County Legislature’s court in terms of getting it on the ballot, Schneiderman noted. He asked Fleming if she anticipated the measure passing the legislature.
“Predicting success on a vote is something I would never want to enter into,” she replied. “I respect the debate that we’re about to have.”
Fleming reminded that there are 18 different districts in Suffolk County. “Each has their concerns, but everyone recognizes that this is an enormous problem that has been literally buried for many, many years, decades even,” she said.
“It’s a big vote to take, but it’s been very well thought out,” the legislator continued. “I’m anticipating that we’re going to have success as long as we do our job right.”
Said McDonald, “I have high confidence that if we can get to the ballot, this will pass.”
One fine body…