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Push to put private Nassau sewers on ballot

The boiler room of the Cedar Creek Water

The boiler room of the Cedar Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in Wantagh. (May 9, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Jessica Rotkiewicz

Nassau civic leaders are moving to put the county's proposed sewer privatization on the ballot this November for a special public referendum, though the measure faces a series of obstacles.

The Nassau County Coalition of Civic Associations, which opposes the sewer privatization, wants voters to have a say if the county attempts to sell or lease the operation, management or control of its water, sewage, public utility or infrastructure.

"The people should have a voice on this deal," said Claudia Borecky, executive director of the coalition. "This will have an effect on our tax bills for the rest of our lives."

Democratic and Republican officials said the referendum would face a series of tests before it could be placed on the ballot.

The civic groups first would have to collect 38,667 signatures -- 10 percent of the total votes cast in Nassau in the 2010 gubernatorial election -- asking for a referendum on the November ballot.

A bill proposing the referendum then would be submitted to the GOP-controlled county legislature, and Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa) would decide whether to call a vote. Even if lawmakers were to pass the measure, by law a referendum would have to wait until after the legislature voted to approve the privatization.

The coalition then could petition to have the privatization reversed in a referendum, said William Biamonte, Nassau's Democratic Board of Elections commissioner.

Biamonte suggested that the referendum faced a high bar this year. "This issue is not ripe yet," he said. "I don't think they can do this yet."

County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, wants to privatize Nassau's sewer system, including two of its treatment plants, 3,000 miles of sewers and 53 pumping stations.

Last month, the county issued a Request for Information to potential investors who would finance the deal by paying Nassau at least $750 million, the bulk of which would be used to retire county debt. The proposal calls for rates to be frozen through 2015 and then increase by the annual rate of inflation, which the proposal estimates to be 3 percent.

Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin noted that the county executive will provide the legislature with information about the responses of potential investors."If in that process the legislature determines a public referendum benefits the process, County Executive Mangano would certainly be supportive," Nevin said.

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