Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
At the very end of its meeting last week, the Farmingdale Village Board without fanfare voted unanimously for passage of what's known as a home rule message, asking the State Legislature to pass a bill drawn specially for their municipality.
But that seemingly routine legislation is likely to reverberate between Long Island and Albany because the message requests that the Suffolk County Water Authority be allowed to cross county borders for the first time in its 60-year history to operate the village water system, if trustees deem the deal the cheapest.
In the following days, new Village Mayor Ralph Ekstrand hand-signed letters asking all Long Island state lawmakers to support the home rule message. "This is extremely political," Ekstrand said. "That's why I'm being very careful."
The issue is volatile because the water authority, created in 1950 by the late GOP powerhouse Kingsland Macy, is run by Democrats. It serves 1.3 million residents and since the 1990s has been active on environmental issues and in acquiring small water agencies.
The bulk of Nassau's 54 small water districts are under GOP control, according to critics of the system who note that district officials often are provided with cars and medical benefits. "They have more government than the Soviet Union," said veteran Albany lobbyist Desmond Ryan. "They are part of the [GOP] army . . . And it's something in an election year not any of the local Republican senators is going to want to deal with."
Village officials emphasize that the proposed home rule legislation would not obligate them to select the SCWA, but only empower the agency to serve Farmingdale so the village can consider available options.
The village already has proposals from both SCWA and the Bethpage Water District. Ekstrand says the South Farmingdale Water District, also in Nassau, wants to offer a proposal on May 21. Outside consultants found Suffolk's proposal best if the village needs capital improvements costing more than $5.2 million, while Bethpage's plan is superior if the capital work costs less. The village will seek bids in June to determine the cost of the work.
State Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) said he was surprised by the home rule message because he thought village officials still were in a "fact-finding phase." He also said the measure is flawed because it should refer to a specific bill awaiting action, and none has been filed. Hannon, who represents both the village and the Bethpage Water District, was noncommittal about the proposal but said he would work for the best solution for local residents.
Former Farmingdale Mayor George "Butch" Starkie, a Republican who advocates the water authority option, said Bethpage has made five different proposals but "hands down" Suffolk's plan is better. He said the authority "could bring us up to the 21st century" to assure Farmingdale's future water supply.
"In Nassau we have more than 50 little fiefdoms with board lifetime benefits and stipends for attending meetings," Starkie said. "It's the kind of thing that should have seen its day."
Water authority officials haven't gotten into the debate. But others who want to see government services regionalized say politics should not bar such cross-county arrangements, already done upstate without fuss. "If we can't do something like this, how are we ever going to do the tough jobs?" asked John Cameron, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council.
Ekstrand, named Republican of the year in 2007 by his local GOP club, says politics will play no role at the village level. "We want to do the right thing for the residents," he said. "They elected me to represent them in the best way and that's what I intend to do."