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Bellone drops effort to get referendum on Suffolk water fee

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone looks on during

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone looks on during a press conference in Smithtown, Friday, May 13, 2016. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s administration has abandoned its attempt to put a proposed water fee to voters this November, saying officials ran out of time to persuade skeptical state lawmakers to put the effort to expand sewers and improve water quality on the ballot.

Instead, county officials said they would bring the referendum proposal to state lawmakers again next year, after providing more details of the plan to them.

The county had sought state legislation to allow voters to decide whether they wanted to create a water quality protection fee of $1 per 1,000 gallons of water used. The county estimated the average family of four would pay $73 per year, though the Suffolk County Water Authority pegged the average home’s cost at $126 per year.

The original plan would have implemented the fee in 2018, but that would now be pushed back a year, officials said.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said the plan “developed relatively late in the session.”

He said it would help “to take time over the next several months to work with everyone without a ticking clock overhanging and find something we can move forward.”

The proposal was met with skepticism from state lawmakers in both parties, who worried the money could be diverted and said they weren’t consulted until shortly before the administration announced its plan in late April. The state legislative session is scheduled to end about June 16.

Bellone has called nitrogen in the water a crisis, causing harmful algal blooms, harming wetlands and getting into the groundwater. A county study shows that 69 percent of the nitrogen comes from septic and cesspools in homes.

Peter Scully, the deputy county executive who spearheaded the initiative, said the proposal couldn’t get support in the State Senate. A day after the county announced the water fee plan, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said Flanagan was “unequivocally opposed to it and said that it was D.O.A.”

A spokesman for Flanagan didn’t respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Richard Amper, executive director with the environmental group Pine Barrens Society, said he was disappointed in state lawmakers for not taking up the bill. He said the complaints about the draft bill had little to do with substance.

“It was mostly hurt feelings and egos,” he said. “You don’t trade the quality of water over ‘nobody asked me first.’ I’ve never heard such pettiness.”

Among the resistance Suffolk officials faced was skepticism that the money wouldn’t be raided for other purposes and questions about where the money would be spent. Scully said the administration was working on a five-year budget.

County officials had regarded 2016 as the best opportunity to get a water fee passed on the ballot because of typically high Democratic voter turnout in presidential election years.

Scully said the administration would continue to do what it could to address the problem of nitrogen and unsewered homes, but would eventually need money.

“We’re going to get to the point where in the absence of a funding source, not much progress can be made,” he said.

A 2014 IBM study done for the county estimated the total cost to address unsewered homes at $8 billion.

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