Suffolk puts rules on sewer grants, loans

Aerial views of the Bergen Point Sewage Plant

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

Rick Brand

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After 17 months of deliberations, Suffolk County officials last week made the troublesome decisions on how they plan to hand out nearly $48 million to spur new sewer construction and fix those that are failing.

It was not easy. Officials failed to fulfill their promise to deliver a plan by the end of last year, and three planning meetings were canceled this year as the debate over how to choose projects dragged on.

A seven-member county committee finally approved a 13-page application form. Those seeking funds will have to file applications by June 4 to compete for sewer grants and loans. They will have to show they are protecting aquifers, bays and other waterways, as well as spurring economic development.

The new county money is the biggest infusion of cash for new sewers since creation of the $640 million Southwest Sewer District, which opened in the early 1980s. At the time, federal and state dollars largely funded such projects, but that money has dried up.

The $48 million is far less than the $300 million former County Executive Steve Levy forecast in 2010 when he proposed to use the surplus of the county sewer assessment stabilization fund for sewer projects. The fund is supported by sales taxes and designed to keep annual sewer tax increases at 3 percent in Suffolk's 22 sewer districts. Lawmakers scaled back the sewer construction and repair plan after analysts warned Levy's projections were too high.

"It's not as much money as we first thought," said Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), deputy presiding officer and sponsor of the bill to provide the $48 million. "But this will put shovels in the ground and give us skin in the game to leverage other sources of money."

Officials say the funding could help the Ronkonkoma Hub project and the Riverhead and Northport sewer districts.

"We are thrilled the process is moving forward to fix existing sewer infrastructure and create critically needed new infrastructure," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

But Esposito criticized the selection criteria as favoring projects that are seeking loans, rather than focusing on those with the most serious environmental needs. A $9 million proposal to upgrade the Northport sewer system is badly needed to protect against what is the worst red tide infestation in the nation, Esposito said. "It should have been all grants," she said of the county funding program.

The new eligibility rules encourage projects that rely on loans rather than grants. Also, the more money applicants have from sources other than the county the better they will score.

All projects must begin construction within 12 to 24 months of approval. The rules aim to boost economic growth by requiring that projects be located near downtowns, transit or in areas without sewers.

Sarah Lansdale, county planning director, said staff will vet and score requests within 45 to 60 days, once applications are filed. Final decisions on funding will be made by the county legislature.

Still unfinished, however, is the screening process to give out $2 million to fund high-tech septic systems in the 70 percent of the county that lacks sewers. Lansdale said county health officials are reviewing a draft proposal.

Horsley, however, said he wants the new septic systems in place by summer 2014.

"I want to push them," he said of county officials.