New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) shown in Wantagh on Thursday.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) shown in Wantagh on Thursday. Credit: James Carbone

Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation Thursday that could pave the way for Suffolk County residents to vote in a November referendum on a 0.125% sales tax increase — or 12.5 cents per $100 — to fund a sweeping expansion of sewers and high-tech septic systems throughout the county.

Hochul, a Democrat, was surrounded by Republican and Democratic elected officials, building groups, union representatives and environmentalists as she signed the Suffolk County Wastewater Quality Reclamation Act at Captree State Park in Bay Shore.

The Suffolk County Legislature still must vote by Aug. 5 in order to put a referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot.

If approved by voters in November, the increased sales tax revenues could fund a dramatic expansion of sewers and modern septic systems throughout Suffolk, where 75% of properties are served by cesspools that do not remove nitrogen from human waste before releasing it into the ground. Nitrogen can fuel algal growth and lower oxygen levels in ground and surface waters.

“We’ve needed clean water upgrades for so long,” Hochul said during the signing event. “If we don't manage our water here and keep it clean and make sure it's accessible, and deal with this now, future generations will say, 'Why were they so negligent? Why didn't they care enough to do something?' ”

The bill authorizes the Suffolk County Legislature to vote on whether to put the referendum on the November ballot.

Backers said expansion of wastewater infrastructure — an effort decades in the making — would allow the county to reduce water pollution from existing homes and businesses and to accommodate new projects such as affordable housing.

“There are a number of developments, some of which are affordable, that can't move forward because they don't have a sewer solution,” Suffolk County Executive Edward P. Romaine, a Republican, told Newsday. “I'm extremely supportive of more affordable housing, particularly if we're talking veterans and young people.”

The GOP-controlled legislature balked last year at putting a referendum before voters, citing concerns that not enough money allotted in a previous version of the bill would go to sewers.

Backers of the tax hike, including Democratic lawmakers, said Republican legislators did not want the initiative on the ballot for fear it would boost Democratic turnout in a year in which all 18 legislative seats were up for election.

Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) denied that assertion and has said putting the referendum on the ballot this year is the legislature’s number one priority. 

The legislation signed by Hochul was sponsored by Assemb. Fred W. Thiele Jr. (D-Sag Harbor) and state Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood).

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