Nassau sewage system plan murky on details

Legis. David Denenberg, left, and Carrie Solages discuss

Legis. David Denenberg, left, and CarriƩ Solages discuss the sewage treatment plant privatization plan proposed by Nassau County at a community meeting in Valley Stream. (April 12, 2012) (Credit: Danielle Finkelstein)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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Nassau County is seeking to fund a potential multimillion-dollar adviser and is close to selecting a private operator for its sewage system, but County Executive Edward Mangano says he's made no decision on whether to go with a private-public partnership plan.

"I need to have the professional and the financial information so I can make a thoughtful decision," he said in an interview Friday. "I have made no decision."

On Monday, the county legislature is slated to consider a contract to hire Morgan Stanley & Co. at a cost of at least $5 million as part of a proposal to privatize the county's sewer services. Within the next few weeks, Nassau also is expected to select a private operator for its three major wastewater treatment plants, 53 sewage pumping stations and 3,000-plus miles of sewers.

Mangano said the county and the chosen contractor would hold a series of informational sessions -- likely by May or June -- to answer residents' questions and concerns about the privatization proposal. He said he planned to have a final decision on the matter by September.

So far, Mangano said, he is considering the pros and cons of three potential scenarios:

A concession agreement -- they typically run 20-plus years -- that would have a private firm run and manage the system and fund improvements, while Nassau retains ownership.

A lease agreement -- which typically lasts 20 years -- that would have a private firm manage and make improvements. Under that scenario, the county would own the system and fund improvements.

An operations and maintenance agreement -- which typically runs two to five years -- under which a private company would run and maintain all or part of the system. Nassau would own, manage and be responsible for financing improvement projects.

Mangano disagreed, not surprisingly, with critics -- who include Nassau Interim Finance Authority control board members -- that the complex and controversial proposal is primarily a mechanism to plug holes in the budget. Nassau, according to documents, is hoping to use $75 million in 2013 and some $40 million for 2014.

But what if the plan, which requires NIFA approval, falls through? "We would have to find another way to deal with our sewer fund, which was never adequately funded, and with the budget," Mangano said.

For months, residents and Democratic lawmakers have been asking questions about the plan.

Last week, three Democratic lawmakers criticized the plan at a Valley Stream forum and what they see as the lack of transparency about what the administration is doing and why.

At some point, Shila Shah-Gavnoudias, the county's public works commissioner, and a deputy took seats at the back of the VFW Hall. They bought along fliers headlined "THE REAL TRUTH" about the system and the administration's plans -- but had to waffle on how "real" the "truth" was because Mangano has yet to make a decision.

More than once, Shah-Gavnoudias told residents, "Do your research." Which, if they took her advice, might lead them to a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group called Food & Water Watch, which briefly mentions Nassau County in a November report titled "Trends in Water Privatization."

The report notes that budget issues are driving a surge in potential privatization deals around the country. Some go; many are killed by public opposition. The report also details how some deals resulted in higher water rates, poorer system maintenance and other complications.

Mangano said he's committed to ensuring that the negatives don't happen in Nassau.

"I want to see something that would protect the taxpayer's pocketbook," he said.

Meanwhile, the more transparency, the better.