The Nassau legislature's decision last week to approve only about one third of the money needed to repair and fortify its aging sewer plants against a major hurricane has county lawmakers and environmentalists worried that completion of the work could be delayed.
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano asked the legislature last Monday to approve $722 million in borrowing for what he termed critical repairs, particularly for the electrical system at the Bay Park sewage treatment plant in East Rockaway, which was severely damaged during superstorm Sandy last year.
But in a continuation of a long-running battle over county borrowing between Democrats and Republicans, minority Democrats blocked the bulk of the borrowing, saying it was unwise to approve all of it at once. The legislature agreed to nearly $260 million, primarily for equipment repairs at Bay Park.
"This was like giving a hat and glove to a freezing man," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a nonprofit group based in Farmingdale. "It's helpful, but it's not going to save him."
Bay Park, which serves 40 percent of the county's population -- about 520,000 residents -- was knocked offline for two days after 9 feet of saltwater entered the facility during Sandy. It took 44 days to restore plant operations after the Oct. 29 storm.
The legislature on Monday approved $259 million for projects such as sludge thickening, pump stations and odor control at the plant.
But the major storm-hardening projects remain unfunded. They include $326.2 million to replace and elevate the plant's electrical system; $72.5 million to protect the plant's exterior from future storms; and $10.8 million for tanks that separate heavier solids from floating trash. Since Sandy, Nassau has had to use electrical generators at Bay Park at a cost of up to $700,000 per month, according to Deputy County Executive Rob Walker.
Walker said that without the full $722 million in borrowing, Bay Park will remain vulnerable to future storms and could face more electrical outages. He said the administration "will go ahead with our planning as if [all the borrowing] were approved. We will expect approval for the next phase in September. But if that doesn't happen, the county could have a problem."
The delay in the bulk of the borrowing has set off a round of recriminations between Democrats and Republicans.
The GOP has a 10-9 majority but borrowing requires 13 votes -- including at least three Democrats.
Legislative Democrats said they wanted to make sure the Federal Emergency Management Agency would reimburse the preponderance of the spending -- though Walker said the administration expects FEMA to cover 90 percent of the sewer system work.
Democrats have also refused to provide Mangano with the votes to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars in tax refunds for homeowners and businesses.
Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said Democrats provided the votes for the $259 million "to get the ball rolling and allow the first phase to begin immediately." Abrahams said he plans to propose an oversight committee to ensure that Nassau maximizes its federal and state reimbursements for Sandy.
Legislative Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) accused Abrahams and other Democrats of leaving the county's sewage system "unprepared" for another storm.
"I'd like to see each of the Democrat legislators stand face-to-face with the families still cleaning sewage out of their homes and see if they'd still say no [to] fixing the sewage plants," Gonsalves said.
Legis. David Denenberg, of Merrick, the only Democrat to join Republicans' support of the $722 million borrowing package, said the treatment plants need major repairs. He said the legislature should approve all of the remaining funding and then conduct additional oversight of individual sewer contracts.
"If we get FEMA money, that's great," Denenberg said. "But this work needs to get done either way."The legislature also declined to approve bonding for about $36 million in fixes for the Cedar Creek sewage treatment plant in Wantagh, including odor and mosquito controls and roof repairs, Walker said.
The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state monitoring board that controls the county's finances, must approve the borrowing and any contracts in excess of $50,000. NIFA Chairman Ronald Stack declined to comment.
Projects funded this week by the Nassau legislature
Secondary treatment: $57.2 million
Digesters to treat biodegradable waste, sludge: $33.4 million
Sludge thickening: $30.7 million
Engine controls: $16.6 million
Pump stations (Phase 1): $50.7 million
Odor control systems: $42 million
TOTAL: $259.6 million
Projects not funded this week by the Nassau legislature
Grit removal to protect pumps: $14.5 million
Tanks that separate solids from floatable trash: $10.8 million
Plant facility flood protection: $72.5 million
Additional countywide repairs: $38 million
Source: Nassau County