The chair of the county's Health Committee said Thursday that he would support a referendum to increase the sales tax to expand Suffolk sewers as a way to improve water quality.
Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport) said he believed residents would be willing to pay more in taxes for a tangible benefit. "When people see the results, they'll be willing to pay for it," he said.
He said he doesn't have a percentage increase or dollar amount in mind. Any sales tax increase would need approval through state legislation, which would not happen until next year at the earliest.
But Spencer's is the first idea floated by an elected official -- outside of hopes for federal and state grants -- about how to fund sewer and wastewater infrastructure estimated to cost as much as $9 billion.
County spokesman Justin Meyers said Suffolk "is open to exploring any option" on funding sewers but has not decided on any funding proposal.
County Executive Steve Bellone last year declared nitrogen in the water a top priority for his administration. The county has secured $383 million in grants to build sewers in parts of four areas on the South Shore. But Bellone has not identified any possible local funding sources.
Meyers, who said Bellone was not available for comment, said, "The number one hurdle is finding funding sources."
Spencer's comment came after a presentation made to the legislature's Health Committee about water quality in the Peconic Estuary. Close to 100,000 bunker died in late May, said Walter Dawydiak, director of the county's division of environmental quality.
"It's a fish kill such as none of us has seen in recent memory," he said. While fish kills do happen, he said, "this one is worse."
The cause of death was loss of oxygen, he said. An algal bloom in the area had caused levels of oxygen in the water to drop off to near zero overnight, according to monitoring buoys set up in the area.
Alison Branco, director of the county's Peconic Estuary Program, said, "The silver lining of the fish kill is it has captured people's attention."
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said a sales tax increase "could be a viable option, with the stipulation that the money just be used for water projects."
She also said other ideas being discussed are a hotel tax; a fee on pesticides and household chemicals; and sharing community preservation funds raised in East End towns, which now are currently used to preserve land.
Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said a sales tax increase would hurt an already ailing economy. "It's taking more money out of taxpayers' pockets," he said.