Brown: Nassau needs answers on sewer partnership

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The Cedar Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in

The Cedar Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in Wantagh Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich, 2010

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has

Nassau County should begin rolling out information about a proposed public-private partnership on its sewer and stormwater system within the next 30 days or so, County Executive Edward Mangano said Monday.

The sooner the better. The upcoming debate on the proposed partnership -- which would impact every business and household in the county -- ought not be as rushed and as convoluted as debates on the county bus service and precinct restructuring plans have been.

During Monday's meeting of the Nassau County Legislature, both the bus system and police precincts came up again.

Riders' advocates complained to lawmakers that the bus service cutbacks, originally billed as minimal, were more than they seemed. Then the legislature took a 15-minute-turned-hours-long break while union leaders and Mangano hammered out yet another way of manning Nassau's soon-to-be created mini police precincts.

The debate over the fate of Nassau's sewer and stormwater system cannot -- and should not -- go the same way. As it is, community groups are clamoring for information about the county's intentions.

The administration says it is in the final stages of selecting a potential private operator in a nearly $1 billion deal that would represent the largest and most tangled fiscal transaction in Nassau's history.

For Mangano, this could be the big one, representing a possible ticket to re-election. During an interview, however, he disagreed with that assessment. "Fixing this county, that's the big one," he said. "That doesn't involve one thing, it involves everything."

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The proposed deal is projected to generate $400 million in revenue, with $465 million more to retire system debt. The mega-one-shot boost of revenue, in theory at least, would be enough to close the county deficit of $310 million, thus ridding Mangano of a state control board.

Mangano said the method of funding and managing sewer and stormwater needs change. "It is not operating properly," he said. A change in management, he said, "would help us operationally and help us fiscally."

But like the early debates on bus and policing precincts, there remain more questions than answers.

Deputy County Executive Robert Walker told Newsday that the county's Sewer and Stormwater Finance Authority is supposed to be bankrupt by 2014. How can that be? The authority -- established by New York State at the county's request in 2003 to save Nassau money -- enjoys a high rating from Wall Street bond-rating agencies. The only significant issue raised by a December ratings report was the authority's ability to raise water and sewer rates.

Mangano backed Walker's assessment. He said that questions on the authority's finances would be among the information given the public. How much will water and sewer service cost down the line? Mangano acknowledged that if the deal covered, say, a 30- or 40-year period, rates would change.


And then there are questions about maintenance, water quality control, environmental impact and a host of others. Mangano said those would be answered, too.

Some members of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the state control board that would have to approve any deal, already have questioned whether a partnership would be the right move.

The county reached a deal with NIFA not to use any revenue from the deal for the 2012 budget. But that doesn't mean the county can't proceed this year.

Legis. Denise Ford (R-Long Beach), during a meeting a few weeks ago, said she would hold hearings on the proposal. "It will not be like Veolia," she promised, referring to the too-short and hardly-sweet process of vetting the company now managing bus service.

It's a promise worth keeping.

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